Bill would add cops to community college campuses [Record Journal]

February 10, 2016

Record-Journal

Of the dozen community colleges in the state, only one is allowed to have an armed public safety officer. That could change under a proposed law that would allow for the establishment of armed police forces at every community college in the state.

Under state law, armed officers are only allowed at Naugatuck Valley Community College in Waterbury. This stipulation is based on legislation passed in the 1980s merging two other community colleges into NVCC. But legislation pending before the legislature’s Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee would extend the option to all 12 community colleges in the state.

“On the surface, I think it’s a great idea,” said state Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton, a ranking member on the committee.

Witkos, formerly a police officer in Canton for 28 years, said there are always safety concerns when large groups of people are in one area, such as a campus setting. The bill would allow community colleges to have a “professional police force,” Witkos said.

State law allows for armed “special police forces” at UCONN, Central Connecticut State University, Southern Connecticut State University, Eastern Connecticut State University and Western Connecticut State University. The legislation would add community colleges in the state to the list. Police officers at each school would have the same duties as members of a local police department. The jurisdiction of each police force “shall extend to the geographical limits of the property owned or under the control” of the community college, according to the proposal.

The Board of Regents would have to approve the measure, though this may have happened already, according to minutes from the Board of Regent’s Dec. 3 meeting.

During the meeting, the board passed a resolution seeking an amendment to the state law governing armed police forces on campuses so that the statutory language “includes community college campuses, to the extent that the individual colleges have need of special police forces, demonstrate readiness to operate a special police force” and agree to ongoing training and required certification through the state Police Officer Standards and Training Council.

“The desire to feel safe on campus is something we hear frequently from students and faculty during school visits,” Maribel La Luz, spokeswoman for CSCU President Mark E. Ojakian, said in a statement Tuesday. “Although not every school wants to arm their security guards now, we want to provide an opportunity for everyone to engage in the discussion.”

The financial impact would vary depending on the campus, she added.

“Some schools already have POST-certified officers, some schools require training, and costs can vary depending on these and other items,” La Luz said.

State Sen. Dante Bartolomeo, D-Meriden, co-chair of the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee, said she can see pros and cons in the proposal. Her husband worked as a campus police officer at UConn for about 12 years.

“I’m not opposed to the concept of campus police being armed,” she said.

But some people have told her that UConn is a different situation because it is like a small city and would have limited law enforcement from state police without a dedicated police force, Bartolomeo said.

It’s unclear how the legislation would impact satellite campuses, like Meriden Center, a downtown Meriden campus operated by Middlesex Community College in Middletown. Bartolomeo said the committee is still in the early stages of researching bills and would seek clarification on how a final bill would be crafted after a public hearing on the subject, which is scheduled for Feb. 18.

“It’s important for the public to understand that there’s an opportunity for them to comment, to give us feedback,” she said.

State Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Lakeville, co-chair of the committee, said a similar bill was proposed last session, but only impacted Manchester Community College. This was a concern for legislators, and the bill didn’t make it out of committee, she said.

Regarding the pending legislation, she is open to a discussion, Willis added.

“We’re going to be taking valuable resources and shifting them someplace else” if police forces are established at community colleges,” she said, noting that the state system lacks counseling and mental health services.
Bartolomeo said the push to arm officers on campus is just a piece of a larger puzzle to address security needs on campuses.

“They are looking at a variety of things like security infrastructure needs, mental health counseling and support, and how they can make it more consistent throughout the system,” she said.

It’s unclear if every campus needs armed officers, Willis said. At Northwestern Connecticut Community College in Winsted, she said, the police department is three blocks away. Witkos said campus police could work together with local police.

Cost is a factor, especially this year, he added. Last week, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy proposed cutting the CSCU budget by over $20 million. Every state agency is looking at a 5.75 percent cut in spending as part of Malloy’s proposal. If the legislation is approved, Witkos said, going forward with establishing certified police forces at community colleges “would have to be a slow process.”