Politics & Policy

Good Security vs. Bad Police Work

Avoiding wrong conclusions after the Virginia Tech massacre.

The tragic mass shootings that killed over 30 and wounded at least as many at Virginia Tech earlier today will doubtless shine a bright light on university campus security around the country. More likely than not, groups will make predictable calls for things they support anyway: Colleges will demand more money to subsidize campus security, gun-control proponents will jump at an excuse to grab firearms, and gun-control opponents will call for stronger measures to let people defend themselves. Although the gun-rights advocates have an important point, the real tragedy at Virginia Tech appears to have stemmed from bad police work. Avoiding it will require a reassessment of the role campus police play.

Campuses don’t need more security. Although simply reassuring the student body probably will require some beefed up security in the short run, neither Virginia Tech nor any other college campus needs to make any long term commitment on the basis of this shooting. Like most college campuses, Virginia Tech is safe. In 2005, the last year for which data are available, the campus had no murders, forcible thefts, or aggravated assaults. Almost no cities of 25,000, Virginia Tech’s student enrollment, ever have had a year that safe. Despite a single horrific day nothing fundamental has changed.

Virginia Tech already has ample gun control and it didn’t stop the shooting. Although the State of Virginia itself has rather liberal concealed firearms laws, Virginia Tech’s Campus Code of Conduct (See section V.W.) already bans all real firearms, BB guns, and even fencing foils. Other than police and members of the University’s ROTC program, nobody can even possess any weapons on the Virginia Tech campus already. No free country has weapons laws as severe as Virginia Tech’s.

Gun-control opponents will likely argue that only an armed citizenry can protect people from random mass shootings. This makes sense. College students vote, drive cars, and pay at least some taxes. If their state otherwise allows concealed carry of firearms, there’s reason to think it should apply to students on campus as well. But it’s impossible to know if such a law would have prevented the Virginia Tech shooting. During the State of Virginia’s last campus shooting — an incident at Appalachian Law School in January of 2002 — two members of the school’s shooting team went to their cars, got their weapons, and managed to subdue a crazed gunman after he killed only one. But even Virginia Tech’s stringent on-campus weapons policy contains exceptions for its Corps of Cadets and, if I’m reading it correctly, shooting teams. In theory, the same thing could have happened there. In any case, armed people can’t always make a difference: security guards with weapons did not stop the shooting at Columbine high school in 1999. Given the total absence of crime from the Virginia Tech campus, would many students or faculty would have even bothered to carry weapons for personal protection even if it were allowed?

Ultimately, some of the blame for what happened seems to lie with the Virginia Tech’s Police Department. The first campus shooting took place at a little after 7:00 A.M., the second two hours later. Even given the chaos that would have likely ensued, two hours would have been more than enough time to close the campus, send employees home, and order dorm residents to remain in their rooms. It appears, however, that the campus police issued didn’t do that. The specific reasons why the police decided not to do so still haven’t come out. But, in hindsight, it’s clear that they should have.

Some of the blame for this may lie with a change in the mindset of campus police. Since the 1970s, campus police forces have undergone enormous changes. They’ve changed their names — they used to be called “security” or “public safety” departments — raised hiring standards, acquired better equipment, and even brought on detectives. In structure, equipment, and training, it’s very hard to distinguish most modern university police departments from the agencies that patrol surrounding cities and towns. This approach makes little sense. Colleges do not have the same police needs as cities — their police agencies almost never need to make custodial arrests, deal with very few violent crimes, and have enormous power to force bad actors to leave their areas of authority without the necessity of judicial proceedings. Despite the obvious differences, however, campus police have begun to look more and more like real police.

Instead of a police mindset devoted to protecting the community from crime, campus police would do better to develop a security mindset devoted to controlling access. They should go back to being “campus security.” Good security guards can play an important role in preventing trouble: at their best, they can know all “regulars” by sight, question outsiders firmly but well, and pay special attention to those who behave suspiciously. Good security also involves planning for both shelter-in-place — “everyone, stay inside and lock your door” — and evacuation plans. College campuses can do these things. Cities, for the most part, can’t. Although some of the planning requires a good mind for logistics, most of this is simpler than ordinary police work.

Little of it requires the training or equipment that ordinary local police officers need. Moving back towards a campus-security model would likely save money. Today, it might have saved lives.

Editor’s note: This has been amended since posting.

Eli Lehrer is president and co-founder of the R Street Institute, a free-market think tank. He lives in Herndon, Va., with his wife, Kari, and son, Andrew.


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