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Mercyhurst to phase in arming police

Monday, June 2, 2014

Mercyhurst University campus police are expected to be armed by the beginning of spring semester 2015, according to a new policy adopted Saturday, May 31, by the university’s Board of Trustees.

“Following a careful assessment of school, college campus and marketplace incidents of violence around the nation, we came to the conclusion that in order to ensure the safest environment possible for our students and employees, our police officers must be equipped to properly function as first responders,” said Board Chair Marlene Mosco in announcing the board’s decision to arm its police officers.

However, the implementation will not be immediate. It will be phased in after policies and procedures are developed and subjected to presidential review. In addition to police training and testing, the phase-in period, headed by Laura Zirkle, Ph.D., vice president for student life, will include situational awareness training for the university community in how to address potentially dangerous situations and an update of the university’s Emergency Response Plan.

“We have always believed that access to deadly force should be proportionate to the risks facing us,” said Mercyhurst President Tom Gamble, Ph.D. “Until recently, that calculation had us stopping short of arming our police officers. In our most recent review, the balance tipped the other way.”

Mercyhurst already maintains a department of Act 120-certified police officers and, through its Municipal Police Training Academy, trains the majority of police officers in the region.

“We’re confident that Mercyhurst police not only are well trained, but represent the best of the best by virtue of our preeminent role in police training and public safety,” Gamble said.

All Mercyhurst police meet or exceed the state firearms qualification requirements. Of the 15 full and part-time sworn officers, eight are former municipal police officers, two are former police chiefs, one is a former Erie PD deputy chief, two are former Pennsylvania State Police, two are former firearms instructors and two have FBI training.

The decision to arm police did not come easily; rather it followed several years of analysis and reflection, including dialogue with faculty, staff and students, particularly during the last academic year after an individual not connected to the university used a gun to take his own life on the Erie campus. At that point, the university established a special task force headed by Gerry Tobin, Ph.D., to study the issue of arming police; conducted university-wide polling to ascertain public opinion and met with individual constituency groups to explore concerns.

Among the concerns was Mercyhurst’s mission as a Mercy institution and its commitment to nonviolence. However, even the university’s Sisters of Mercy came to support the change. A statement by the Sisters notes:

“Arming the officers is not inconsistent with Mercy values, for we have a duty to protect our students and employees.

“Arming campus police does not promote violence but aims to protect against it.”

A recent university-wide poll showed that arming campus police received support from 69 percent of administrators, 51 percent of faculty and 73 percent of staff, for a total of 65 percent.

“Mercyhurst is a suburban institution with a safe campus, but we are living in a culture of increasing gun violence, both at home and around the nation,” Mosco said. “For us, arming campus police has become an unwelcomed necessity.”