Should Campus Security and Safety Officers Be Armed?

Should Campus Security and Safety Officers Be Armed?

The higher education system in the United States encompasses traditional four year universities, junior or community colleges, small religious oriented colleges, and a wide variety of trade or technical colleges. Each year over 20 million students physically attend classes at a college or university campus at one of the more than 7,000 institutions of higher learning in the United States. Additionally, each year millions of non-students, alumni, and members of the general public, attend a wide array of events at college and university campuses across the country.

Creating and ensuring a safe environment on college campuses is critical in fostering a healthy learning environment. While it is widely recognized that campus security and safety is an important aspect of postsecondary education, many colleges have traditionally relied upon unarmed “Campus Safety Officers,” instead of armed campus police officers. High profile reports of crimes committed on college campuses, including the slaying of 32 people at Virginia Tech University in 2007, have caused some to question the safety of college campuses that do not have armed security or police officers. This article examines crime and safety on college campuses and discusses the benefits and disadvantages of having armed security or police officers on campus.

Safety on college campuses.

Since 1990 The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act has required all colleges that participate in federal student aid programs to report specified crime data on a yearly basis. While crime statistics gathered under this federal statute are valuable; sociologists, criminologists, and other researchers who study crime statistics are correct when they point out that evaluating crime statistics is complicated by many factors. Raw statistics without proper analysis can be misleading for a multitude of reasons. In many cases, crimes occurring on college campuses may not be reported to anyone at all or they may be reported to local police instead of campus safety or security departments. Some colleges may not have adequate institutional structures in place to accurately collect crime data and there may be reluctance by some schools to thoroughly collect crime data for fear that it will give the school a bad image. While not widespread, there have been colleges and universities that have been fined for failure to comply with the Clery Act. As skewed and incomplete as Clery Act crime statistics may be, the crime statistics disclosure requirement can be helpful in evaluating the safety of a particular college or university.

While high profile crimes often put campus safety in the media spotlight, shootings, murders, and serious person-to-person crimes – while they do occur, are not common. Interestingly, while some campus crime can be attributed to criminal intruders or mentally deranged individuals coming onto campus, the vast majority of campus crime involve students as both perpetrators and victims. When compared to the general population, research overwhelmingly shows college campuses are one of the safest places to be.

Armed or unarmed security?

While all available research clearly shows that college campuses are safe in comparison to the community as a whole, campus safety is a necessary feature of postsecondary education and almost every college campus has some type of “security” personnel. Some institutions employ sworn and armed law enforcement officers who have full arrest powers granted by a state or local government. Other institutions employ sworn officers but do not arm them with firearms and many colleges use non-sworn officers who are sometimes equipped with pepper spray or Tasers but in other cases are completely unarmed.

Whether to have armed officers on college campuses can be “an emotional issue” for many people. Some college administrators just do not see a need to arm their officers with firearms. They point to the relative safety of college campuses and point out that their officers are first and foremost “safety officers” who are primarily involved with building lockups, parking enforcement, key control, lost and found, personal safety escorts, Haz-Mat management, fire and crime prevention education, and assorted public service oriented work. Many institutions with non-sworn and unarmed officers believe that the presence of officers with a gun belt detracts from the educational environment and makes officers less approachable.

In cases of an active shooter situation, proponents of unarmed security point out that as tragic as these occurrences are, they occur very infrequently and statistically will never occur on most campuses. If the rare active shooter incident were to occur, these institutions rely on a response from local law enforcement which presumably has the training, expertise, and firearms necessary to address the threat. Colleges that rely upon unarmed campus safety personnel often point out, and rightly so, that there is no empirical evidence that suicidal shooters are deterred from attacks on college campuses by armed security personnel.

Additionally, having armed security requires regular training and training costs money. There is also increased legal liability that comes with employing armed security personnel. While negligence tort actions for inadequate security are increasing regardless of whether the security personnel are armed, there is generally far less legal liability associated with unarmed security personnel than armed security personnel.

The Role of campus security and safety personnel.

Call them what you want – campus police officers, safety officers, security officers, or anything else; each college or university must make a fundamental determination as to what they expect from their safety and security personnel. Safety and security functions on many campuses have just gradually “morphed” or evolved over the years instead of resulting from a systematic and well vetted plan for campus safety and security. Many administrators do not recurrently ask the fundamental question: Exactly what do we expect from our safety and security personnel? If the school wants their personnel to focus on building access control, safety escort services, fire and crime prevention, parking enforcement, vehicle jumpstarts, escorting visitors around campus and related service oriented work, there is probably no need for their officers to be armed with a firearm. Many colleges and universities across the United States have chosen this route and have been able to maintain safe and secure campuses.

On the other hand, if the school expects their personnel to perform a more traditional law enforcement role (i.e., confront violators suspected of committing crimes, conduct undercover investigations, intervene in physical altercations or active shooter situations), then the school has an obligation to give their officers the tools required to do their job. “Tools” include less lethal “force multipliers” like pepper spray, batons, and Taser, and it also means firearms.

If the decision is made to arm officers with firearms or even less lethal weapons, school administrators should recognize the increased obligations and responsibilities that come with such a decision, namely hiring, policy and procedure, training, and supervision.

Hiring campus security and safety personnel.

All colleges and universities hiring security personnel, regardless of whether they will be armed or unarmed, should have a thorough and probing hiring procedure that allows for a comprehensive evaluation of candidates. However, if the school expects their security personnel to perform a law enforcement role and especially if the school arms their officers, they should be aware that the potential for civil liability also increases. One way to mitigate this risk is for the employer to conduct thorough law-enforcement type pre-employment background investigations, including psychological testing, on all candidates.

Use of force policy and procedure.

Along with hiring only those personnel passing a stringent background investigation, clear policies and procedures must be established to provide guidance on the use of force, especially on the use of firearms. An effective use of force policy sets the tone for officers and supervisors and is more than just putting words on paper or adopting some other institutions policy. Crafting sound and effective use of force policy takes specialized expertise and requires constant review and evaluation. Additionally, the policy must pass legal muster and must also be consistent with the values and mission of the organization.

Comprehensive training required.

Having a good use of force policy is nothing more than fancy words on paper unless it is implemented and followed. An employer that expects their security personnel to make arrests, or use force – including the threat of force (i.e., pointing a firearm or pepper spray at someone, displaying a baton in a striking position, etc.), or even an employer that merely allows their security personnel to occasionally perform these functions, has a positive duty to not just train their personnel on the tactical use of the weapon, but must also train their personnel on the force that can be legally used and the limits of that force.

In today’s world, effective training should include reality-based scenario training that allows controlled stress to be introduced into the training to simulate real-life conditions as best as possible. At a bare-bones minimum, use of force training should include training in applicable laws and statutes, policy and procedure, de-escalation techniques, tactical decision making, as well as mental health recognition and communication. Additionally, it should include some type of proficiency testing and all training records must be meticulously maintained.

Training involves a huge investment in time, effort, and money. Employers that fail to provide adequate training should not be surprised when things go wrong. Additionally, inadequate training subjects the college to an increased risk of tort actions for negligent training. When campus security uses force – particularly when they use or threaten the use of lethal force, and an injury or death occurs, one can expect that the injured person will file a lawsuit. One of the issues that will undoubtedly surface during litigation is the type of training the officer received or did not receive and the policies that were or were not in place governing the officer’s actions. The risk of legal liability can also include security personnel who sustain injuries (including long lasting psychological injuries) during a use of force encounter. There are instances of security personnel suing their employer under a negligent training theory. Under these claims the basic argument is that the employer failed to give them the necessary training to do their job and as an actual and proximate result of that failure, they were injured.

An analysis of legal cases involving inadequate training for police and security personnel is beyond the scope of this article, but a review of the following cases give just a glimpse at the types of issues and liability that can result from claims of inadequate use of force training: Popow v. City of Margate, 476 F. Supp. 1237 (Dist. N.J. 1979); Tuttle vs. Oklahoma, 728 F. 2d 456 (10th Cir. 1984); Zuchel v. Denver, 997 F.2d 730 (10th Cir. 1993); McCelland vs. Facteau 610 F. 2d 693 (1979); Davis v. Mason County (WL 31291, 1991, 9th Circuit Court of Appeals), (927 F. 2d 1473 9th Circuit 1991); Rymer vs. Davis (754 F. 2d 198, 6th Circuit 1985).

Before a college or university decides to arm their safety and security personnel they should have a clear understanding of the issues raised in these and many other similar cases. They should understand that merely having armed personnel qualify once or twice a year at a firing range, as is still the standard in many campus and municipal police departments, is likely to fall under the ambit of inadequate training.

Quality supervision is most important.

Supervision of campus security and safety officers is unique and is essential for all campus safety and security officers as it helps personnel focus and do their jobs properly and it also helps officers comply with policy and maintain standards. Whether personnel are armed or unarmed, to be effective supervisors must serve simultaneously as a mentor, a trainer, and a guide. But, if campus officers are armed with firearms or less lethal weapons, proper supervision takes on even greater importance. When force is used – even if it is used appropriately, it sometimes results in complaints of excessive force. When courts, the Department of Justice, or even the local media, review or scrutinize force complaints one common thread often becomes apparent – ineffective supervision.


While college campuses are very safe when compared with the general community, serious crimes do occur on campus property and every college or university should have a comprehensive and on-going plan to provide for a safe and secure campus. When developing a safety and security program, colleges and universities should have a clear understanding of what role they want their security personnel to perform. If the decision is to have armed security personnel, campus administrators should have a clear understanding of the legal liabilities involved in arming personnel and they should take proactive steps to mitigate those risks. Hiring quality safety and security personnel, developing clear policies and procedures, providing comprehensive and on-going training, and effective supervision are affirmative steps that administrators can take to mitigate liability.

Finally, regardless of whether a college or university makes the decision to have unarmed or armed safety and security personnel, they would benefit from establishing a systematic approach to campus safety and security. Such an approach should be based on a philosophy that campus safety and security is an omnipresent responsibility that permeates every department on the campus. There must be recognition that everyone on campus has a responsibility to be security conscious and take personal steps to ensure their safety and security (i.e., report suspicious activities, lock vehicles and remove valuables from vehicle, participate in campus safety and security initiatives, etc.). While campus safety and security departments can provide leadership and can respond in crisis situations, there must also be recognition that campus safety and security can only be achieved through a shared responsibility. Campus safety and security can no longer be the exclusive responsibility of the safety and security department.



George W. Babnick, is a 34 year law enforcement veteran with an extensive background in physical security, criminal and administrative investigations, training, school policing, supervision and management, and criminal forensics. He retired as a Captain in the Portland Oregon Police Bureau where he managed the Training, School Police, and Forensic Evidence Divisions. He holds criminal justice degrees from Portland Community College and Portland State University and a law degree from Northwestern California University School of Law, Sacramento California. Mr. Babnick is a longtime member of the Western Society of Criminology and is the author of articles on security and law enforcement, investigations, supervision and management, and risk management related to these subjects. As a physical security expert, George Babnick provides private physical security consultations across the United States and consults with clients outside the United States. He specializes in assessing security problems for small and medium businesses as well as select individuals. He offers independent, honest advice and expertise, with the goal of providing all clients with practical and cost-effective security solutions to enhance security and effectively manage business and personal security risks. Mr. Babnick is also a licensed Private Investigator and conducts investigations for attorneys, businesses, and individuals throughout the State of Oregon. To learn more about security consultation and investigative services offered, please visit Disclaimer: Nothing in any article on this blog should be construed as legal advice. Persons seeking legal advice should seek the counsel of an attorney licensed in their state.