Police and Safety officers at Mercyhurst University are now carrying firearms. It began on Monday, March 2.
The decision to arm officers is the culmination of a two-year process of first debating the issue and then deciding how to implement it. The officers have gone through enhanced firearms training, as well as training in conflict de-escalation techniques, additional psychological examinations, and sensitivity training on cultural differences in preparation for the implementation, Chief Robert Kuhn said.
The officers are armed with a 9mm Glock pistol, with access to two AR-15 assault rifles secured inside the vehicle.
“This is really more for campus protection from outside threats and officer protection. It’s not going to change the way we handle a call,” Kuhn said.
All of the officers contracted with Police and Safety have gone through the Police Academy and are sworn officers. While they receive firearms training at the academy and are required to be tested once a year by state law, Kuhn requires the officers to test twice a year with live ammunition and twice with a Firearm Training Simulator (FATS), which is used to improve officers’ ability to make quick decisions on whether or not to use force.
“They’re probably better trained than the guys I worked with down at the Erie Police Department,” said Kuhn. “When I started this, I wanted to be on the same level as the FBI, because I worked with them for four-and-a-half years at the Joint Terrorism Task Force, and they train with their weapons four times a year.”
Arming the officers on campus is one part of a comprehensive strategy to improve the physical security of the Mercyhurst community. The Department of Student Life upgraded cameras, improved lighting in areas around campus, examined replacements for E2 Campus text alerts, and had an employee trained in ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate), a crisis response system for higher education, with plans to train other members of the university.
“Our priority based on the McManus report [the report commissioned by Mercyhurst to examine its security practices] is you can’t do everything at once, so we’ve prioritized it. The things we could do quickly, we did quickly,” Laura Zirkle, Ph.D, Vice President of Student Life said.
The next task is to train the larger Mercyhurst community how to respond to crises. Zirkle said the McManus report approved Mercyhurst’s emergency response protocols, but there needed to be wider distribution of people who know how to respond to events which arise.
“Our core team knows what they’re doing with ERP. The problem is the bigger community doesn’t,” said Zirkle. “So now what we want to do is get everyone trained.”
In addition to improving the community’s ability to respond to crises, Student Life plans to improve locks on doors around campus.
“Right now, many of our classroom doors can’t be locked from the inside. Our hope is to have all the classroom doors be able to be locked by fall,” said Zirkle. “The other door and lock issue is housing. The outside doors on Briggs and Lewis, and some of those apartments especially, have just taken a beating. So we’ll start replacing to make sure those doors are safe.”
The improvements to protecting the students have also affected the Title IX system at Mercyhurst, particularly the policies that address cases of sexual assault.. The university has increased the rigor of how cases are reported and addressed. The university has also formed a bystander committee, which intends to increase student involvement in preventing cases of sexual assault, and will participate in events such as Take Back the Night in March.
“We’re going to use a program called Step Up, like step up and say something. And the idea is that we’re all kind of watching out for each other, and if you see something going on that maybe makes you concerned, we’re giving people tools and a kind of mechanism to say, that person needs help,” said Zirkle. “The best thing we can do for safety is get everyone involved in it.”
Zirkle said one of the most important components of the program to better secure the campus is the vigilance of the Mercyhurst community.
“It’s important for everyone to step up and watch out for each other, and for our campus. If you notice something that seems unsafe, or you notice someone doing something that makes you concerned for them, step up and say something, get help,” Zirkle said.