WCC trustees discuss possibility of armed campus officers

WCC Trustees: Fleming, Das, Landau and Hatcher

 

BY TAYLOR ROBINSON
Editor

 

As part of one of Washtenaw Community College President Rose Bellanca’s six main initiatives for the school year, campus safety and security has been brought to the forefront. In light of an increase in violent acts across the United States – particularly among school campuses – more and more institutions are reevaluating their school’s safety.

At the board’s retreat on Nov. 17, the trustees along with many members of the administration, gathered for more than two hours to discuss options for WCC and the possibility of enhancing the college’s campus safety and security. In addition, administrators delineated the role of WCC’s Care Team and counselors, and the Crisis Management Team.

“Our goal is to be very proactive,” Bellanca said in her opening remarks. “We have teams in place…college-wide that work to identify potential threats and manage crises.”

Damon Flowers, vice president of facilities, grounds and campus safety, summarized the current responsibilities of security personnel. They patrol the entire campus by bike, foot, or vehicle, as well as, attend to medical needs, disruptions on campus, enforce policies and more. They are responsible for monitoring more than 2,000 doors, 1,000 devices and 210 cameras. The overall budget for the operation is $1.5 million including a contract with Ann Arbor Township –which utilizes a Police Service Unit – set to expire Dec. 31 of this year.

According to Flowers’ “anecdotal information,” the calculated average amount of time the unit is visible around campus or near the area is about four to six hours a week at an annual cost of $165,000 which also includes fire and Emergency Medical Technician responses.

A recent meeting called by Bellanca, with Ann Arbor Sheriff Jerry Clayton and Ann Arbor Township Supervisor Mike Moran, allowed the opportunity to discuss the long-standing relationship (nearly 15 years) with this type of security.

Discussions led to the first of three options presented to the board. The first option, also favorably expressed by Bellanca, would be the suggestion to work through a contract directly with the Sheriff’s Office of Washtenaw County and implement a School Resource Officer model.

“We would be working with a very well-trained, student-focused, armed – what we like to call peace officer – who would understand our college mission, get to know the campus, get to know the students and the culture,” Bellanca said. “They would be just steps away in case there was a rare but a real case of a violent incident happening and they would be familiar with our staff and our community.”

Some of the considerations about this model are that it’s effective in high schools, it limits the college’s risks and liabilities due to being contracted with the Sheriff’s Office, and WCC personnel would have input on the selection process, according to the administration.

During Flowers’ presentation, he added the estimated cost of such a model would be about $700,000, also depending on the number of SRO’s in place. The estimated timeline for this to be operational would tentatively be July 2016.

The second option presented by Larry Barkoff, the college’s general counsel, focused on WCC implementing its own police force either under the Community College Act (Public Act 331) or Public Act 330. Under Public Act 331, the officers on campus would be “MCOLES certified Police Academy graduates,” meaning they meet all standards of the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards. They would have completed written and physical tests and would be very highly trained.

According to Barkoff, their jurisdiction would be the campus and all property leased and owned by the college within the state. Instating this model would also include access to law enforcement databases and history of warrants. He reports that risks and liabilities are increased for administration and the board by having its own police department. If wanting to pursue a PA 331 force, it would require two public hearings.

PA 330 would be the next level between what is already in place at WCC and PA 331. Barkoff states the requirements are fairly minimal, including passing a three-week course. These officers can also be armed as long they individually qualify to purchase or possess a gun.

The third option discussed would focus on contracting with an outside firm to provide a police force. Although the risks and liabilities are lessened by working with firm, according to the summary of options, it would also limit the college’s ability to hire or build strong relationships with personnel. The firm would probably provide officers falling under PA 330, the lesser trained officers.

Not only did the administration reach out to peer Michigan community colleges, but surveys of WCC students, faculty and staff were also conducted. The surveys, issued by WCC’s Institutional Research Department and developed by Bellanca, went out to all 1700 employees of the college, along with approximately 1600 out of 12,211 students on Nov. 4.

According to Julie Morrison, executive director of institutional effectiveness, planning and accreditation, students were drawn from having logged into the Campus Connect system since August and according to the survey results sheet, the students have also been involved in a club or organization.

The brief survey included the following questions: How important is safety and security at WCC to you while on campus? How safe do you generally feel while you are on WCC’s campus? Currently, WCC employs its own unarmed Campus Security force providing regular patrols on campus. Would you support moving toward enhancing the WCC Campus Security force with a limited number of armed police officers? The third question also included an open-ended answer.

“The response for faculty and staff was 24 percent, which may not sound good but for a survey it is a really good response rate especially for one that wasn’t up for that long,” Morrison said. “The student response rate was eight percent, which also doesn’t sound good but we’ll take it because a lot of WCC students don’t check their WCC email, it’s still a good representation.”

While Bellanca may be in agreement by commenting in her opening remarks “…Overall, our campus community supports moving toward having more of an armed presence on campus,” some of the board members found grounds of disagreement in response to the survey results.

“You would think the people who did answer are people who are more concerned about the issue than the people who didn’t answer,” Hatcher said. “So, I’m not persuaded in any particular direction one way or the other from the survey.”

Trustee Stephen Gill shared Hatcher’s sentiments by saying that because of the response rate, the numbers don’t mean that much.

“There’s a lot of errors in these numbers,” Gill said. “But, the quality of the open-ended responses and your analysis of that, this says that this is how some of the people feel on campus and that’s important to look at.”

Board Chair Richard Landau summarized the meeting’s purpose as “simply to get a sense from this board where they are leaning.” After a couple hours of discussions, the board concluded by deciding to try and bring  a representative from the Sheriff’s Office and a proposal with regard to negotiating a contract to the Dec. 8 board meeting.

Vice Chair Diana McKnight-Morton addressed the concern that above all, the decision needs to be made carefully – especially because officers would be interacting with students, special needs and diversity. With 15 years of experience working in the Sheriff’s Department, she says she’s seen both the nice and not nice sides of officers.

“I don’t want everybody to be up in arms about why they are acting this way because that’s the way they are trained,” McKnight-Morton said. “They are trained to be aggressive. They are not coming here to be nice, and fuzzy, and warm. So, I think the main thing we have to look at, whoever we get outside of what we have now, we’ve got to be careful. We’ve got to make sure that these people are going to be able to transition into our life, this campus life, faculty, students, everybody.”

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