Arming Berklee Police: What You Should Know

by Lily Lyons

So I’m sure that you all have heard about Public Safety’s recent decision to arm their police officers. Because the open meetings on the subject keep being at awkward times, we at the Groove thought we’d go for you and update you on what you need to know about the decision and why it’s happening—and, of course, how we feel about it. 

The 101

Since When? A year and a half ago, Berklee started a major security overhaul, going from relying on the outside contractor Securitas to directly employing professional police officers. This change was made to help Public Safety improve in a variety of areas, from handling sexual assault cases to assisting the local community. The discussion about whether to arm the newly hired officers started from this restructuring.

Why? Public Safety’s stance is that they need to maintain the security level of other colleges and follow the recommendations of the US and Massachusetts Department of Education (which both suggest arming.) They also feel that not arming inhibits their officers from being as effective and safe as they could be, particularly in crisis scenarios such as shootings or terrorist attacks.

Who are our officers? A common misconception in this debate has been that all public safety staff will be armed: only the trained police officers will carry guns, not the security team. The 13 patrol officers hired (out of about 300 applications) had to undergo background checks, psych evaluations, a weapons assessment and an oral board.

What’s their arming policy? Each officer has a 9MM round in a Smith & Wesson. The guns are only available to the officers during the shift. 

Concerns About Arming

If this decision to arm is about feeling safe then we have to ask: who among students, faculty, and staff will feel more safe knowing there are armed police officers at Berklee? And who will feel less safe? In the context of hundreds of years of systemic police brutality towards people of color, an armed police presence may be a cause for fear instead of a resource for security for many members of our community. The recent horrifying, senseless murder of 15 year old Jordan Edwards is just the latest confirmation that we can’t ignore the impact of this legacy of violence and discrimination. Public safety has screened the officers it has hired for diversity, and put them through cultural sensitivity and unconscious bias training. But these measures might not be sufficient to address an issue so complex and urgent. And community trust and relations could be negatively impacted by arming.

In terms of objective safety, does arming our officers actually make our community safer? Will the possibility of a faster, more effective response to a mass shooting outweigh the possibility of an injury or death due to Berklee police being armed? The data is about this is complicated. Until recently the only statistics we had on armed police killing civilians were self-reported by officers/departments, which made the numbers highly inaccurate. In the past couple years, independent organizations have been motivated by the need for transparency and the Black Lives Matter movement to begin their own counts. What data they have so far suggests that rates of civilian fatality from police are rising yearly in the U.S, though they’re still calculating. As for mass shootings, we know that they’re increasing, and that college campuses are a common location for mass shooting incidents. But the likelihood of being killed in a mass shooting is still exceedingly rare for the average American, and has been overhyped by the media. Also recent research on how armed police officers react in crisis situations shows that they often aren’t able to respond consistently and appropriately.

Conclusions

At its core, the question of whether to arm Berklee police officers is about whether the best way to respond to escalation is to escalate back. Do we enter the groupthink that we should do this because other colleges do this? Does this really make sense for our community? Berklee is not like a normal college in many ways: “it drives other police a little crazy because it’s all these strange kids walking around carrying odd shaped boxes,” as the public safety team pointed out during the open meeting to shared laughter. I personally think arming Berklee police doesn’t help deescalate potentially violent situations here, as officers may be less likely to consider creative ways to ease tension when they have the option to use force. And ultimately the solutions to tragedies such as mass shootings will have to come from dismantling oppressive structures and changing society. But if arming is going to happen, I think the best thing we can do is engage Public Safety with our questions and concerns— they have stated that they are working to “protect, not police” us and they can do that most effectively when we have an open dialogue with them. 

HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT PUBLIC SAFETY ARMING POLICE OFFICERS? LET US KNOW IN THE COMMENTS!