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Police at the University of Rhode Island could soon be carrying firearms following a vote Thursday by state education officials to end Rhode Island's distinction as the only state to prohibit police on public campuses from carrying guns.
The Rhode Island Board of Education voted 8-1 to allow leaders at the state's three institutions of higher education to decide for themselves whether to arm campus police.
URI President David Dooley favors the idea. The Community College of Rhode Island does not plan to arm its police. Rhode Island College officials are studying the idea and have not decided either way.
Calls to arm campus police got a boost after reports of a gunman in a URI building last month. No gun or shooter was found, but supporters of arming campus police say the incident highlighted security weaknesses.
While the first campus police arrived within about a minute, officers could not enter the building because they weren't armed. It took South Kingstown police about six minutes to arrive and go inside. State police arrived within about a half-hour.
Before being armed, campus police would receive the same level of training given to other officers.
"I feel quite comfortable that the people we are looking to arm — if that decision is made — are duly trained and certified and all the things we expect from police officers," said Board of Education member Colleen Callahan.
Several URI faculty spoke out against the proposal at Thursday's board meeting. Physics Prof. Peter Nightingale said supporters of arming the campus police are reacting out of fear. He said studies show that guns don't reduce crime.
"The experiment is over and the results are in," he said. "More guns spell more violence, more victims, more fatalities."
Dooley said he wants to get input from faculty and students before making a final decision. The university must present a report on its deliberations before any of its officers may be armed.
"There's a strong divide of opinion on campus," said Dooley. "We'll consider all the information. We will think very carefully about the consequences of that decision."
The state's General Assembly had been considering legislation that would allow URI or the other two institutions to arm their police forces. Those bills are now moot.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee, an independent, supports the board's decision to allow each institution to set its own policy, according to spokeswoman Christine Hunsinger.
Only one board member voted against the measure. William Maaia said he has philosophical objections to arming campus police. He also said he thinks that the policy should be consistent across the state's three public institutions of higher education.