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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

After year of debate, Public Safety now armed

Published: August 29, 2008
Section: Front Page

After much debate and controversy last year, all but five Brandeis Police Officers have been certified for and are currently in possession of firearms.

The first group of officers to be armed completed their firearm training in mid-June, and, while Director of Public Safety Ed Callahan would not say exactly how many individuals serve as Brandeis Public Safety Officers for safety reasons, he did say that the remaining five officers should be in possession of firearms within three to four weeks after they complete firearm training.

All officers will carry their firearms with them on their shifts. Callahan said that officers also will carry a chemical OC spray, similar to pepper spray, and a baton to use as an impact weapon.

“They have always carried these weapons, so those aren’t new,” he said.

“We hope that there isn’t a need to use any of those weapons, but they are alternatives which would be used before firearms. The firearms are not our Plan B. They’re the last letter of the alphabet,” he added.

Before gaining possession of the firearms, Callahan said, every officer underwent an intense training program, which included lessons on verbal skills, diversity training, how to escalate and de-escalate violent situations, and psychological and drug testing.

The drug testing will continue yearly for all officers in possession of firearms, and the psychological test (which is similar to the test officers take when they apply to work at the university) will be reviewed on a need-be basis, Callahan said.

Callahan himself has been through the training and now carries a firearm.

In response to the Virginia Tech shooting in April 2007, Brandeis University President Jehuda Reinharz, along with an advisory panel, made the decision to arm Brandies Public Safety officers last September.

The panel ultimately decided that there was a “legitimate gap” in response time between the Waltham Police and Brandeis Public Safety that made the arming of campus police a necessity, Callahan said.

The decision was met by protests and petitions across the campus, and resulted in the Democracy For America DFA sponsored group, Students Opposed to the Decision to Arm.

SODA took action in the form of petitions and even met with Reinharz to encourage him to rethink the decision.

While Reinharz agreed that the Student Union should hold a forum to answer students’ questions about the arming of campus police, he did not change his mind about the issue.

Phil Lacombe ’10 co-founded SODA with fellow junior Ben Serby in October of 2007 after hearing about the decision to arm.

“With Brandeis Police having guns, it makes guns a part of our campus life,” Lacombe said. “I like to think of Brandeis as a safe zone where we can keep certain things away from our community, but now guns are a part of it.”

After many students expressed concern about his decision, Reinharz created a Firearms Policy Advisory Committee in order to determine how the firearms would be introduced to campus. The result was the intense, month long training that all officers must undergo before receiving their firearms.

The committee included three undergraduate students – former Union president Shreeya Sinha ’09, Matt Rogers ’08, and Fanny Familia ’09. After the selection of three undergraduate representatives, the Union held forums for students to express their various concerns.

Lacombe said that he is concerned that, despite the training, the presence of guns on campus increases the possibility of a fatal police-student conflict.

“I know that the officers are trained to only use the guns in situations when they feel their lives are at stake, but violent situations can quickly escalate and become unclear. Accidents happen.”

Callahan, however, wants to assure the campus that the police having possession of firearms will prove beneficial.

“It’s a perception thing. Most people, when they see an officer, will probably look at their guns right away, especially at Brandeis,” he said. “I know that guns have a sort of stigma here, but they are nothing to be afraid of. It’s another tool towards increasing the safety, not decreasing it.”

Still, Callahan said that while it is unfounded, he understands Lacombe’s fear.

“People thought that introducing guns to the campus meant police were going to shoot at them, and we understand where they are coming them. But they need to trust that we are still the same community-serving department we have always been,” he said. “Nothing has really changed.”