Campus debates rifle purchase

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A proposal by the chief of the campus police to purchase rifles for his officers is in the crosshairs of a sharp but evenly-divided debate on the Southwestern College campus. Many college employees said they would be more supportive of the purchase of rifles if there was a comprehensive safety plan in place. Interim Superintendent Denise Whittaker said she is listening carefully to all points of view, but will make the final decision.

Police Chief Brent Chartier’s proposal includes five rifles, ammunition, training time, range reservations and cleaning. Each rifle costs between $1,200 and $1,800. Every officer will have to undergo a 24-hour training and pass multiple tests in order to be certified in the use of rifles, Chartier said. All San Diego County college campuses and police departments have rifles, he said.

Interim Superintendent Denise Whittaker said it is imperative to pay attention to the recommendations of the campus safety committee as well as the advice of the Chula Vista and National City police departments. She said she believes their recommendations would be to make sure to provide the right tools for campus police officers to do their jobs.

Chartier said that SWC is now better prepared to respond to a serious emergency. He has said his officers need high-powered rifles to protect the campus community in case of serious threats. SWC officers use Glock 22s that he said only shoot up to 25 yards and become inaccurate after 15 yards. Sergeant Robert Sanchez, SWC’s No. 2 cop, said Remington 870 shotguns can shoot lead beanbags rather than lethal rounds.

“High-powered rifles discourage shooters from emerging on campus,” Sanchez said. “Rifles offer a large advantage over handguns and are far more accurate. They allow officers to shoot targets hundreds of yards away.”

“I know that it is our obligation to protect our officers and to protect our community,” said Whittaker. “The safety committee, which is represented constituent groups, made the recommendation because they felt a handgun could not go close enough, leaving us with the liability that they cannot protect us.”

Chartier said he wants more than just rifles.

“Eventually we will also request vests and helmets,” said Chartier. “Our current vests are only designed to stop handgun pellets, not rifle bullets.”

Whittaker said she thinks the issue goes beyond just the question of rifles.

“I think the campus community wants to see more community policing,” she said. “They are holding the rifle issue in abeyance because they want to see some change in the overall campus leadership for how campus police operates on a college campus.”

SWC English professor Andrew Rempt said he does not agree with purchasing rifles for the police. Faculty and staff of SWC who are not directly connected to safety issues have not been trained on what to do in the event that rifles are needed, he said. Rempt said he wants to be able to protect his students the best he can, but has no idea how.

“How am I to know there’s a shooter on campus? There is no alert system for such an emergency,” he said. “So when the campus police are deploying their tactical team with rifles in hand, I could be dismissing a class and having students wander right into the line of fire.”

Peter Bolland, professor of philosophy and humanities, said no one likes to think about the unthinkable. He said he personally hates guns, but thinks SWC needs a professional class of individuals who choose to make it their life work to train in the art of police work so the rest of the campus community does not have to.

Bolland said the acquistion of police rifles should be one component of a much more comprehensive campus safety plan. He is willing to defer to law enforcement professionals who know more and volunteer for a highly-dangerous job.

“I don’t tell my dentist what tools he needs or doesn’t need,” said Bolland. “We ought to afford the same respect and humility toward our campus police.”

Rifles did not prevent a grisly murder at San Diego City College, said SWC counselor Corina Soto.

“High-powered rifles did not save the student in the domestic violence incident,” she said. “These incidents are more probable and we have had these incidents at our college. People are using the example of what happened at Virginia Tech, where a professor barred the door with his body to protect the students in the classroom. There was not a rifle involved in that.”

Soto said the decision-making process is illogical.

“The likelihood of having a shooter on campus is statistically highly improbable,” she said. “I’d like to know why SWC is making decisions on statistics that are highly improbable.”

Online System Administrator Larry Lambert said the campus has been fortunate no one has been seriously injured or killed.

“Unless rifles are put into the hands of trained campus police officers, we are going to lose lives,” he said.

Whittaker said in the spirit of supporting and recognizing freedom of speech she has no issues with people voicing a negative opinion about rifles, but will continue to follow process.

“Ultimately, I would like a good sense of how the campus really feels about rifles,” she said. “It is hard in e-mail dialogue to get a sense of entire feelings when I have just as many telling me please take me off this e-mail list. I don’t want to be involved in these conversations. I trust people to make the right decision.”

Soto said one of the recommendations presented by the safety committee stated that SWC needs to hire a qualified contractor to draft a comprehensive emergency preparedness plan (EPP). This has an item that has been directive for four years. Soto and others insist Chartier should have written a plan years ago.

“I don’t believe we should reward bad behavior with buying high-powered rifles,” said Soto. “When there hasn’t been a discussion of the EPP for which lethal force is going to be one of the options, it is highly inappropriate.”

Bolland said the campus dialogue is healthy and democratic, but decisions should be made promptly. He cited the July 1984 San Ysidro McDonald’s Massacre when gunman James Huberty murdered 22 people and wounded 19. Bolland said Huberty was wandering around the restaurant, checking pulses and finishing off his victims when a single bullet from a police sniper stopped him. Who knows how many lives that police rifle saved, Bolland said.

A summary of a U.S. Secret Service School Initiative Report titled “Preventing School Shootings” states that school staff are often the first responders. It reports that most shooting incidents were not resolved by law enforcement intervention. More than half of the attacks ended before law enforcement responded to the scene, despite law enforcement’s often prompt response. Many of the incidents involving school shootings lasted 20 minutes or less. In these cases, faculty or fellow students stopped the attacker, or the attacker either stopped shooting on their own or committed suicide, according to the report.

Whittaker said the decision on rifles ultimately falls on the superintendent. Shared consultation with the SCC means is that there is opportunity or feedback, but not authority to make a decision about rifles.

“Rifles is an operational procedure, it is a business decision,” said Whittaker. “Certainly knowing up front whether the community supports it or not tells me up front what I can expect in making the decision. But if the decision to protect the institution is best made to provide the officers with what they need, then I just have to take the flack if that is the ultimate decision.”

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