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Colleges consider all factors in protecting students

Giving students a safe place to learn is a top priority in any educational environment. For Rochester-area colleges and universities, ensuring student safety can mean employing an armed security force on campus.

Locally, five colleges and universities use armed security and three others are in the process of or considering the transition to an armed force. Among those weighing the options of a conversion, cost is often a major consideration.

The use of armed security on campuses is on the rise across the country. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice show the number of campus law enforcement agencies that use armed officers is up from 68 percent in 2004 to 75 percent in 2011 at U.S. four-year colleges and universities with 2,500 or more students.

Leading the way
There has been an armed security presence at Monroe Community College since 1968.

The security team is called public safety as opposed to campus safety, says Salvatore Simonetti, chief of public safety at MCC.

“It drives home that our officers are armed and carry the responsibilities of police officers.”

MCC public safety officers have full authority to make arrests and conduct investigations on campus.

All 21 campus safety officers attended the police academy used to train police forces from the city of Rochester, suburban towns, villages and Monroe County. It is the Monroe County Public Safety Training Facility certified by the state of New York.

The tuition cost is borne by county taxpayers, but there is a cost to MCC in covering the officers’ shifts while they are in training, Simonetti says.

The skills the officers gain are invaluable and so are the interactions they have while at the academy, he believes.

“They are building relationships with investigators from other local agencies, which is a worthwhile investment,” Simonetti says, noting that his MCC team would partner with area municipal agencies in the event of a major emergency.

In addition to covering shifts, MCC pays for the cost of equipping the officers, including firearms, ammunition and bulletproof vests, which averages a total of $2,500 to $3,000 per officer.

MCC has a hybrid force of both sworn public safety officers and security guards, who are used at campus events to direct traffic and provide high-visibility security. Their training is state-sanctioned and provided by in-house certified instructors.

The pay difference is significant: Armed officers earn between $43,200 and $55,422 and security guards earn $29, 500 to $37,900.

Simonetti, a retired Webster police lieutenant, says 50 percent of community colleges across the state are considering the implementation of an armed security force.

He travels across New York to sit on the SUNY Community College Public Safety Assessment Team to share the experiences of MCC’s armed force.

“Are they prepared? Cost is a concern, especially starting from the ground up,” Simonetti says. “These are some of the top concerns that come up.”

Evolving responsibilities
All 29 four-year campuses in the State University of New York system have armed, full-time police officers and are required to plan and practice for active shooters as part of emergency management plans.

Thomas Kilcullen, chief of police at SUNY College at Geneseo, oversees 18 sworn police officers on the Livingston County campus. He says the arming of Geneseo campus officers around-the-clock began following the April 2007 massacre on the campus of Virginia Polytechnic Institute. A student opened fire as he randomly walked the campus, resulting in the deaths of 32 students.

“The responsibilities the officers have incurred over time has expanded,” Kilcullen explains, as a result of the need to be prepared to respond to such incidents. “Officers need firearms training, certainly, but in addition they need training in emergency vehicle operation, plus modules in law such as New York State criminal procedure law, penal law, and training on sexual assault investigation. That’s just a thumbnail of all the training over 29 weeks.”

Training costs are estimated to be approximately $3,000 per officer, in addition to salary and benefits during training. The larger cost comes from the time it takes before an officer is eligible to be scheduled.

Following the training at the police academy, all recruits must also complete 12 weeks of field training before they can be employed on their own.

“All in all, it is a full-year investment, which adds up to an estimated first-year cost of about $100,000,” Kilcullen says.

With the amount of time and training invested in preparing an armed officer, there have been concerns about the loss of the significant investment to turnover. A new benefit added to the compensation package within the last year could improve retention.

“The state fire and police pension now applies to our officers,” Kilcullen says. “I think it will increase our stability in hiring and retention and offset future loss of trained officers.”

The starting salary for SUNY police officers is over $50,000, which Kilcullen says is competitive with police agencies in the region.

Different approaches
Three local institutions considering a transition to an armed force are private colleges and universities, and each has a different approach to the concept. Roberts Wesleyan College, Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of Rochester have ongoing discussions underway about the possibility of a conversion to armed security.

RIT announced last December that in academic year 2016-17 it would deploy specially trained officers with access to firearms on each shift in an effort to protect individuals on campus. The objective of the armed response, RIT officials said in an official statement, is to contain an active violent threat until local law enforcement arrives.

“Violence on college campuses across the United States has tragically become all too frequent in recent years,” RIT President Bill Destler says. “Sadly, there have been 23 shootings on college campuses in 2015 leading to too many violent and senseless deaths.”

FBI data show 120 students, faculty and staff were victims of gun violence on college campuses from 2000 to 2013. Of all the active shooter incidents in the United States during that time period, about 24 percent occurred at educational institutions.

A professor on the campus of UCLA was shot and killed June 1 in a murder-suicide by a former doctoral student.

RIT leaders, who prefer not to disclose cost estimates, have yet to implement an armed security force. The university is conducting a national search for a new assistant director of public safety who will oversee the process, says Robert Finnerty, chief communications officer.

One decision RIT leaders feel is certain is that the officers will not carry the weapons, but instead have access to them in case of emergency.

“We did not want to have an environment where the public safety officers are patrolling on campus with a firearm. We think it sends the wrong message,” Finnerty explains. “We are also in a unique situation with our deaf population. Communication is very vital.”

Exploring all needs
At UR, the campus security department transitioned to a safety department in 2012 in an initiative led by then-Chief Financial Officer Ronald Paprocki that required legislation signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The university’s first 25 sworn peace officers were installed in 2013; today the total number stands at 66. The officers do not carry firearms, but they do have powers of arrest and investigation.

Recently, the university has been in discussions about the possibility of arming its peace officers.

In July, university leaders announced the Campus Security Commission would extend its deadline for a report on security, including whether to arm some members of the Department of Public Safety.

The commission has consulted with faculty, staff and students on the River, Medical Center and Eastman campuses, each of which has different needs and views with respect to the safety and security of their areas, the university said in a written statement.

President Joel Seligman plans to update the university board on the commission’s findings sometime in August, but says there will be no determination until all faculty, staff and students have had a chance to comment on the final report during the fall semester.

UR is not disclosing cost estimates while the commission review is underway.

No easy answer
The estimate to add an armed security force at Roberts Wesleyan College is in the “high six figures” says Richard Billitier, director of campus safety at the college.

The private Christian college currently employs 22 security officers. Fourteen of them are former or current law enforcement officers, including Billitier, who has 25 years of experience with the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department. He retired and is now a part-time marine officer in the Monroe County Parks and Marine division.

The college anticipates a decision this academic year on whether or not to arm its security force.

“There is the expense of arming the officers, additional training, equipment, additional insurance. There is so much to it, especially starting from scratch,” Billitier says. “It’s not a quick and easy answer.”

As a Christian institution, the question of an armed security force raises a set of issues that may be different than for other campuses, says Ruth Logan, vice president for administration.

“We have to consider, ‘is our campus community comfortable with it?’” Logan says.

The starting salary for security officers there is currently $25,000, significantly lower than other area colleges. Logan says pay is not the main attraction for officers at the college.

“We’re a Christian institution, and all of our officers are Christian as well,” Logan says. “They are committed to the mission of the school and they want to use their talents here.”

Campus safety is a top priority and a major selling point on every campus tour for prospective students, Logan says.

“It’s a standard part of how we do business,” Logan says. “Parents want to know their children are going to be safe.”

Roberts Wesleyan is proud to have a team of former law enforcement officers as its security force.

“Even unarmed, they are highly trained and experienced,” Billitier points out.

While the financial impact is always a consideration in any decision an institution of higher education makes, some question if there is a premium that can be placed on campus safety.

“There are costs in terms of the firearm, equipment and training,” says MCC’s Simonetti, “but we also have a duty to protect, and without those costs the risks to public safety could be even greater. So, in the end, it all comes down to a risk analysis.”

8/12/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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