Yesterday, our colleague Ari Maas wrote an op-ed that urged the University Board of Trustees to “arm Princeton University’s Police Department officers with handguns.” He started the piece by rhetorically asking, “Princeton University wouldn’t have its carpenters do their work without a hammer, so why does the Princeton University Police Department not have the tools it needs to do its job effectively?” Unless PUPD’s job is to intimidate and kill, this insensitive analogy holds no merit in this debate.
As a diverse group of public policy students and former social service providers, we do not believe that the Princeton University community, officers included, is any safer with handgun-armed officers than under current policy.
First, campus police officers simply do not occupy the same purview as municipal police officers. Police chiefs are typically accountable to elected officials, whereas chiefs of private campus police departments respond to campus administrators. Second, campus police departments are not subject to the same regulatory and legal standards as municipal police officers. On private campuses like Princeton, for example, police are not subject to the same accountability safeguards and thus are not required to make many police records public.
Maas offers anecdotes of serious and tragic incidents that took place on college campuses in order to justify his argument in favor of arming the police. Let us revisit some of those. In the University of Pennsylvania case, the shooting occurred outside of the Penn Patrol Zone, the police officer was armed, and the suspect was shot and killed by Philadelphia Police officers. Here, as would happen under normal protocol in Princeton, campus police worked alongside their municipal partners to “neutralize” (that is, to kill) the suspect. The Wayne State University officer who was shot while on patrol was armed. The Southwestern State University police officer was accompanied by a local police officer and both officers were armed. In fact, not only were all of these officers armed, but they were also supported by local law enforcement officers. In none of these instances is it apparent that the presence of a handgun played a role in diminishing or deterring the horrific attacks that ensued.
To be clear, sworn officers of PUPD do have access to weapons in the case of any armed assailant on campus. The department also has close collaborations with local police departments, including the municipal police departments in Princeton, West Windsor, and Plainsboro, which each have concurrent police jurisdiction over parts of campus. Officers in these departments are armed with handguns and areat the ready to support PUPD immediately in case of emergency.
From surveying studies, we see a different potential threat to the Princeton University community: the danger to the public of armed police encounters and the statistical likelihood of disparate racial outcomes. An analysis of national police-involved shooting data in 2015 found “no correlation between the level of violent crime in an area and that area’s police killing rates” — which is to say, living in a low-crime suburb like Princeton doesn’t mean armed police officers would choose not to use their gun.
We know that PUPD received the same training as police throughout the state — a fact which may not be reassuring with respect to racial disparities. A 2015 report by the New Jersey ACLU found that in four small towns near Princeton, “black and Hispanic people were between two and 10 times more likely to be arrested for petty crimes than white offenders.” In fact, police across the State of New Jersey were not uniformly required to undergo de-escalation or cultural diversity training until state officials mandated them in late 2016. Now, all police officers must participate in five hours of continuing education on these topics before the end of 2017. A 2016 bill signed by Governor Christie additionally required that each local police department “develop their own diversity training catered toward their communities.” Even though these new measures represent an important step, they are the bare minimum that should be required of all police officers, armed or not. As members of Princeton’s diverse community, we would feel much safer knowing our police are thoughtfully prioritizing de-escalation and community-centered diversity training. We feel less safe at the thought that our campus could suddenly contain dozens more guns.
This debate is not new. A 2010 survey showed that a majority of Princeton students opposed arming officers. As a result, the Princeton student government formally recommended that officers not carry handguns. The University Board of Trustees must stand by their decision to limit the weapons carried by PUPD.
We should seek to measure up to — even surpass — our Ivy League peers in academia and sports, but not in an arms race for potential lethal force and violence.
By Alessandra Brown, Mari Castaldi, Aya Saed, and Laura Williamson; all four authors are Master in Public Affairs candidates at the Woodrow Wilson School.