Suffolk looks to revisit SUPD arming question

Following Columbine, Virginia Tech and other mass shootings across the United States, many universities have been forced to address similar versions of the same question: Should we arm our university police force?

“My hope is that we will one way or another put this question to rest this spring,” Suffolk University President Marisa Kelly said in a recent interview with The Journal. “That is to say, so when we come back next fall we’re not saying ‘So are we going to have another forum on this?’”

In early April 2018, Suffolk University retained the campus security consulting firm Margolis Healy to “review the safety and security of the Boston and Madrid campuses,” according to an email from Kelly’s office to students. The firm specializes in campus safety assessment and has consulted for other schools in the area, including Emerson College and Boston College.

On Jan. 28, the results of the firm’s assessment of Suffolk’s campus security were sent out via email to students. The results can be accessed using a university login.

Kelly and the Board of Trustees plan to use the firm’s advice to improve safety protocols on campus. Kelly said no decision has been made yet about whether to arm the Suffolk University Police Department (SUPD). A SGA forum is set for Thursday to discuss campus safety further.

The firm did not specify whether it believed SUPD should be armed. Rather, it suggested that more communication take place between the community and the administration before deciding, according to the Public Safety Management Study done by the firm.

The firm declined to comment on its assessment, referring The Journal back to the executive summary.

“This is never something that I felt was a good idea to rush to a conclusion in either direction,” Kelly said. “There are strong feelings on all sides of this, and there are a lot of different community constituents that we need to hear from as part of this process.”

Opinions on campus are mixed about whether SUPD should be armed, according to current SGA President Morgan Robb and the firm’s report.

Some students supporting arming campus police argue that it is “unfair to the officers who are responsible for responding to potentially violent situations and blind to the reality of how violent interactions unfold,” according to the firm’s report.

Others who oppose such a move cited issues such as police brutality, according to the report. Also, some were concerned about the prospect of officers carrying firearms within the residential halls in situations where residents or residents’ guests were under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Some residential assistants were particularly concerned with the idea following a SGA forum that took place with SGA, Boston Police and SUPD representatives on Nov. 15, 2017, according to Robb.

“[Reslife] had more concern that adding firearms would just add another layer in situations that are either already likely heightened by the use of alcohol or other drugs in the residence halls,” Robb said. “Sometimes students and officers can be a little riled up in those situations.”

Gerard Coletta, SUPD’s chief of police and security, said in an interview that while university police officers know the campus’ buildings better than Boston Police, Boston police would be the primary response in an active shooter or violent situation, with the SUPD helping them navigate the campus buildings.

If SUPD were to become armed, Coletta said that dynamic would change.

“We don’t try to attempt to stop the person that’s doing the shooting or the person that’s engaging in violence because we’re not armed,” Coletta said. “All of our officers are first responder trained in terms of medical response so we would go in with a second wave.”

The firm held forums in late April 2018 to hear the community’s concerns in order to give a fair assessment of SUPD and the university’s security operations.

According to Margolis Healy’s report, “Out of the 18 colleges and universities in the greater Boston area, two-thirds of these institutions have armed officers.”

Emerson College, Suffolk’s close neighbor, has never armed its officers and has no plans to do so, according to Michelle Gaseau, Emerson’s director of media relations.

Kelly Nee, Boston University’s chief of police and executive director of public safety, said in an email to The Journal that she preferred that her officers carried firearms and could respond immediately to a violent threat as opposed to waiting for armed officers to arrive.

“If an event were taking place on campus, my officers would more than likely be the first on scene,” Nee said. “I would prefer that they have the capability and never need or use it, than not have it and encounter a Virginia Tech or Ohio State scenario.”

“I think with superior hiring, training and a complete understanding of the culture of the institution, there is a balance that can be struck,” said Nee. “That being said, each institution must do what they think is in their own best interests, and ultimately that must be respected.”

Coletta said that legally, “by virtue of their warrants,” Suffolk University police officers have the authority to be armed. The reason they have not been thus far is because Suffolk used to only have security in the past, not sworn police officers.

It’s really the historical transition from a security operation to a police operation in general in campus public safety. Over the past 20 to 25 years, campus police operations [in general] have become more professional than they ever have been,” Coletta said. “By necessity, we’ve become much more professional … we’ve transitioned into much more like a municipal police department.”

SUPD is split into three divisions: dispatch, security and police. There are 22 sworn police officers currently employed by SUPD and the university, according to Coletta. Dispatch handles communications and security handles access to buildings such as residential halls, 73 Tremont and David J. Sargent Hall. The officers within the police division hold the same powers of municipal police and receive the same training as municipal police.

If the university decides to arm its police officers, security officers and dispatch officers would not be armed because they do not receive firearms training like sworn officers do, Coletta said.  Security officers have the authority to enforce the rules of the university but not state or federal laws.

Coletta also said that if SUPD armed its officers, they would have to undergo psychological evaluation.

“You can take away people’s rights. You can take away their freedom by arresting somebody, you can take away their freedom by searching their belongings… there’s an awesome responsibility a police officer has,” Coletta said. “My philosophy is if you’re going to grant someone that authority, they damn well better be professionally capable and fully trained.”

The process of retaining the firm began in early April 2018, according to emails sent to students from the Office of the President.

Although the consulting firm was asked partially to explore whether the university should arm its police, Kelly said that since the SGA had surveyed students about arming SUPD in the fall of 2017, the spring of 2018 seemed like a good time to do an overall assessment of campus safety.

More than 900, or less than 1/5th of the student body, answered the SGA survey. About 740 students completed all questions.

The results were divided: about 51 percent said they thought arming SUPD would increase safety, 33 percent said they did not, and 16 percent were undecided.

Kelly said that although the SGA survey was helpful, the decision should be made with the long term in mind.

“I don’t know that that would really change anything one way or another,” Kelly said. “This is certainly not a decision we can make based on the perspectives of any given year.”