By Mary Primbs
From Sandy Hook Elementary School to Wayne State University, it is clear that educational institutions are not immune to the rapidly spreading epidemic of firearm homicides in the U.S. It is difficult to untangle the messy threads left behind by this wave of violence, as many types of incidents could fall into the category of “firearm homicide”: mass killings of civilians by lone civilians, law enforcement shootings of unarmed civilians, and the assassinations of law enforcement officers. Just over one year ago, a gunman killed eight students and a professor at Umpqua Community College, just a two hour drive down I-5 from Chemeketa. Should our college community be worried that a similar incident could happen here? Would arming our public safety officers solve more problems than it creates? The answers to those questions have sharply divided our campus.
The college’s public safety officers are charged with duties such as issuing parking citations, providing access to campus facilities, enforcing the college’s policies and providing safety escorts. But what would happen if an active shooter threatened the lives of college community members in a situation similar to the tragic incident at UCC? Is Chemeketa’s Public Safety Office prepared for such an emergency? In a time when the term “mass shooting” has become a common household phrase, there is still confusion over the most effective way to protect the patrons of Oregon’s post-secondary education institutions.
In an article written by Timothy Williams of the New York Times dated Oct.1, 2015, the day of the Umpqua shooting, former UCC president Joe Olson stated that one of the college’s biggest debates in the previous year had been whether the school should have armed officers. Olson indicated the college was equally split over the decision to arm their officers, but in the end the college decided against it.
UCC subsequently hired one armed police officer according to an OregonLive article from Oct. 15, 2015. The armed officer was a deputy from the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. Multiple attempts were made to verify the continuing presence of an armed officer on UCC’s campus, but at the time of publication The Courier was unable to do so.
Bill Kohlmeyer, the director of Chemeketa’s Public Safety Office, said Chemeketa’s policy for carrying weapons states that anyone who has a valid concealed weapons permit can legally carry a firearm on campus, with the exception of the college’s public safety officers. Chemeketa’s officers are hired and certified as unarmed private security officers, and are subject to ORS 181.70 through 181.991 and Oregon Administrative Rule 60. These laws state that private unarmed security officers have the authority to make citizen’s arrests, access criminal records checks utilizing computerized criminal history information, make fingerprint comparisons, and perform fact-finding investigations. They do not, however, have the authority to carry firearms.
The Department of Public Safety Standards and Training (DPSST) is the board that regulates the training of both armed and unarmed private security officers. Oregon.gov, a state website, indicates that the training for unarmed security officers is a minimum of 14 hours of classroom instruction/training and a written exam. “It is the exact same certification that the bouncer at the bar has to check I.D.” Kohlmeyer said. The minimum training for armed private security officers is: the 14 hours of training for unarmed officers plus an additional 24 hours of basic armed training, a written exam, a safe gun handling test and marksmanship qualification. In addition, armed officers must take a four-hour annual refresher course and a firearms marksmanship requalification.
Many of the community colleges in Oregon have a close relationship with their local law enforcement agencies to help them in emergency situations. Chemeketa’s public safety officers are trained to call the Marion County Sheriff’s Office since the college is outside of Salem city limits.
Kohlmeyer said he does not expect his officers to go in unarmed in the case of an active shooting. They are instructed to wait for armed police to arrive. The protocol is for Chemeketa’s public safety officers to meet law enforcement as soon as they arrive at the college, wherever that may be. The college’s officers will then accompany the armed police officers to the location of the emergency and hand over their building keys and key codes to the armed officers.
But will law enforcement be able to arrive at the school in time to defend such an attack as the one at UCC? “We know that response time by armed officers is one of the keys to limiting the damage of these things – and our officers are going to get there first,” Kohlmeyer said. “There’s just no question about it. There’s just no way a deputy or a police officer is going to get to the classroom in question or the building in question faster than our officers will get there.”
Opinion at Chemeketa is split on whether or not the college should have armed public safety officers on campus. Terry Rohse, the president of the Chemeketa Classified Association (CCA), which consists of all non-administration and non-faculty employees, conducted a survey of the association members. The survey, conducted in November of last year after the Umpqua shooting, asked “Should the Chemeketa Classified Association support the effort to enable at least some of our officers to carry a handgun?” Rohse stated that 191 out of approximately 350 members responded to the survey, and there was overwhelming support in favor of arming the college’s officer’s: 66.49% said yes, 26.18% said no and 7.33% had no opinion.
But not everyone shares that opinion. Traci Hodgson, a U.S. history professor and the vice president of the Chemeketa Faculty Association (CFA), said in an email interview that, “I would not personally feel safer if public safety officers were armed. First, I believe that guns add danger to any situation and I would hope for a violence-free environment in which to educate students. Second, I know that incidents break out rapidly and the chances that an armed public safety officer being able to respond within seconds to an issue on campus is low. So unless you station officers in every corridor of every building, the chances that those armed weapons could minimize the damage of a violent incident is unlikely.”
Hodgson, who at that time was the president of the CFA, conducted a similar email survey of the members of the faculty association. The outcome of that vote was different than the CCA’s survey: 44.4% were in favor of arming public safety officers, 44.4% opposed arming the officers and 11% were unsure. “Some wanted additional training [for officers] if they were armed and some suggested stun guns rather than weapons. Others asked that the officers themselves be asked the question to see if they wanted it,” Hodgson said.
Rohse and Hodgson both presented the results of their surveys at a routine meeting held by Chemeketa’s Board of Education. Rohse indicated that none of the board members had any questions or response in regards to the survey.
Rohse said the college’s public safety officers, who belong to the Chemeketa Classified Association, do wish to be armed with more than pepper spray and a baton. “There is not one [officer] I know of that said ‘no, I don’t want to be armed’. That’s something we’ve been fighting for a long time. We’ve got all these guns on campus – but what does that do? Nothing. If the public safety officers aren’t armed, they’re expected to go into a gunfight with a knife? No – we’re not going to let them do that.”
Rohse said he believes most of the public safety officers have concealed weapons permits, but by law they are not allowed to carry them while on duty at the college.
When asked about his view of Chemeketa’s officers being armed, Kohlmeyer replied: “[I]n my personal opinion…most of these shooters pick places where they’re pretty sure people can’t defend themselves. They don’t go to the gun show and start shooting; they don’t go down to the police department and start shooting. I believe we should have an armed presence on our campus. But that’s different than just giving our officers guns. I’ve spent most of my life carrying a gun. It takes a lot of training, a lot of discipline and strict policies.”
Is Chemeketa currently considering having armed officers on campus? “We have talked about it many, many times.” Kohlmeyer stated. “It’s a decision the board has to make.”