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The Journal Gazette

  • Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette Grant Cowan, administrative training officer and firearm instructor at IPFW, displays his personal AR-15. IPFW is one of many campus police forces allowing its officers to carry semiautomatic rifles.

Sunday, April 24, 2016 7:17 am

Police on campuses bring out big guns

Jeff Wiehe | The Journal Gazette

He opened fire in Cole Hall at just after 3:05 p.m. Central Standard Time.

It was Valentine’s Day, 2008, and Steven Kaz­mier­czak wore a shirt with the word "Terrorist" emblazoned over an image of an assault rifle. He used a shotgun first, blasting round after round into a mass of his fellow Northern Illinois University classmates who had gathered for an oceanography class in a 120-seat auditorium.

When he was done with the shotgun, he used a Glock9 mm, shooting at least 50 rounds as he walked up the aisles. When all was said and done, six people were dead – including Kazmierczak, who shot himself before police could get to him – and 25 more were injured.

That shooting came on the heels of the Virginia Tech massacre, in which a gunman killed 32 people in April 2007, a rampage many experts say played a role in changing college campus police forces all across the country – not only in how they operate, but what they operate with.

Rarely seen in use, many campus forces in the nation have been acquiring semiautomatic rifles patrol officers can carry as a standard part of their arsenal, weapons those in law enforcement say can provide better aim and more stopping power should a gunman begin shooting into hordes of students.

Police at IPFW have nine such rifles, all from the Vietnam era, at their disposal.

"They have a greater range," said IPFW police Chief Julie Yunker. "Let’s say we have an active shooter on the north end of the second floor of Kettler Hall, if my officers enter the south end, see that person as described and know they might have to use deadly force, they can be more accurate with a rifle than a handgun."

"Not to create a pun," Yunker added, "but it’s hit or miss with a handgun."

The rifles are given only to officers who have an interest in carrying them and can also show they are qualified in handling them, Yunker said. An officer who does may carry the department-issued rifle or one of their own if it’s the same basic make or model. At least eight of her 13 officers carry an assault rifle. 

"And not to paint a picture of the machine gun with a pile of ammo around the shoulder, but these give us more capacity," Yunker said. "We won’t run out of ammunition."

Other schools, like the University of Saint Francis and Indiana Tech, employ security guards without guns of any kind.

"Priority 1 for any university is to provide a safe and secure learning environment for its students, and any decisions made about the type of protection a university will employ to achieve that goal is based on careful evaluation of various factors," a statement said from Matt Blair, director of marketing and communications at Indiana Tech. "Indiana Tech used such analysis to determine that it does not need an armed police force on campus. We utilize Securitas Security Services, which provides 24/7 protection for our campus through various means."

Blair’s statement added that the security officers are first responders who are trained in cardiopulmonary vascular resuscitation.

But IPFW police are not alone.

A report from the Associated Press found at least 100 U.S. college police forces – and probably many more – have introduced or acquired rifles in the past decade. And in other parts of the nation, campus police with such high-powered arms has caused controversy. 

At Northeastern University in Boston, the acquisition of semiautomatic rifles drew criticism from Boston police, who according to the Associated Press said the guns are unnecessary with the city police so close to campus. Tensions have also been raised at schools like the University of Maryland and Florida State University over such rifles carried by officers, the news agency reported.

Still, many students attending universities may not even know how the officers patrolling campuses are armed.

"I did not know," said Brittany Brown, an IPFW senior studying criminal justice. "As a student who goes there, I don’t really mind. It kind of makes me feel safer if something did happen. They wouldn’t have to wait for another police department to come and help handle a situation or other protocols." 

Many experts stress the use of such weaponry is rare, but it does happen. 

According to the Associated Press, police at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill responded with rifles after a false report of a gunman on campus, and at least one Florida State officer responded to a 2014 shooting with a rifle but didn’t shoot the gunman because other officers were in the way. 

Yunker began her tenure as IPFW police chief about two years ago. She knows of onecase in which one of her department’s officers grabbed his rifle from the trunk of his squad car but put it back a few minutes later when it was determined it was not needed. 

That incident, though, happened before her time with IPFW. 

"To my knowledge, no one has ever used one," she said. 

The rifles currently in use by IPFW came from the federal government’s 1033 Program, which provides police agencies across the country with military-grade equipment on the cheap due to a surplus of weapons. The program came under fire in the wake of the events in Ferguson, where police in the small Missouri town were seen trying to subdue civil unrest in tanks and body armor. 

While Yunker lauded the program, she understands the critics.

"It’s gotten a bad rap because some agencies had taken advantage of it and made themselves look like an occupying force," she said. "Obviously we’re not interested in getting Humvees, but to have these (rifles) is really important," she said. 

So important, that some day Yunker hopes to replace them with newer models, most likely without using the federal government program, partly so the rifles can be set up the way the department needs them to be set up – just in case. 

And that is the main focus – being prepared for the potential need. 

When she first took the helm, Yunker said one of her officers mentioned the department had not had much training for events such as occurred at Virginia Tech or Northern Illinois. That has changed. Under Yunker, her department goes through such scenarios often, including a massive training exercise this past November.

Earlier this month, faculty and students on campus were also put through an active-shooter scenario and coached on what to do.

After all, Yunker noted, Northern Illinois, where Kaz­mier­czak took the lives of five of his fellow students and terrorized the roughly 20,000 others, bears a striking resemblance to IPFW and the 15,000 students she’s in charge of protecting and policing. 

"IPFW is Northern Illinois," she said. "We are essentially the same school."