The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hear testimony Wednesday on a bill that would allow Rhode Island State College Police to carry guns.
The hearing comes after a scare at the University of Rhode Island about a gunman on campus, and Rhode Island is currently the only state in the country that does not allow armed campus police at public colleges and universities. The University of Rhode Island is also expected to release its preliminary review in the coming days examining how it responded to the report of a possible shooter.
The incident at URI turned out to be a false alarm, but it was scary for students like Holly Rehm who were caught up in it.
"Eeverybody started like running down and saying he had a gun or something like that," Rehm said.
The mere suggestion of a gun on campus sent the university into lockdown mode for several hours. Holly Rehm was in the middle of a large physiology lecture where the panic started. She remembers hearing someone scream "get out get out" and says that's when everyone started running for the door.
"All I know is we all just we all just kind of ran out and it was all really fast and we all just left our stuff," said Rehm.
URI is normally a peaceful college campus, tucked between woodland and small farms in a mostly rural part of the state. Police logs show the first call about the possible shooter came in just after 11:20 in the morning of April 4th. Around the same time university officials noticed a post on Twitter. They issued an emergency alert, telling students and campus faculty to stay inside so authorities could investigate.
Local news interrupted programming to cover the situation. Meanwhile, URI President David Dooley was at a meeting in Providence, about an hour away from campus. He got a text message that police were investigating reports of a shooter.
"It's the last thing you ever want to hear, as probably anyone, but especially as a university president," Dooley said.
He excused himself from the meeting, jumped into his car and sped south toward campus. On the way, he noticed cell phone lines were jammed as people tried to reach loved ones on campus.
"The whole time you're driving your thinking oh my goodness, what is happening because communications were not as rich as I would have liked," Dooley said, recalling that morning. "It was difficult to even get text messages out for a little bit."
The university's website was also overwhelmed, making it difficult for many people to find out what was going on. Dooley says social media became the main source for communication, and that's one issue he plans to address in the aftermath of the incident.
Fortunately, there was never any gunman on the URI campus. The scare resulted from a comment overheard and apparently misunderstood. But URI President David Dooley says the entire incident proves something he's been saying for some time, that campus police should carry guns.
"I believe that the University of Rhode Island Force should be armed," Dooley explained. "I think that is widely considered the best practice for institutions like ours if you look across American there are very few, maybe no public research institutions of our size in which the force is unarmed."
The police force at URI carries pepper spray and collapsible batons, but not guns. In fact, Rhode Island is currently the only state in the country that does not allow state universities to arm their police forces, according to higher education officials.
The issue has come up several times over the years, but the board that oversees state colleges and universities has never acted on it. One major concern is the cost. A 2010 state report estimates it would take hundreds of thousands of dollars to arm police at all three state college campuses.
It may be worth the expense, according to Criminologist James Allan Fox from Northeastern University.
"Campus police need to have weapons at their disposal in their holsters on their bodies in case the rare event of a shooting on campus or some other major attack," Fox said from his office on Northeastern's Boston campus. "Or even minor attack. They need to be ready to respond and protect all of us on campus."
Fox says an increasing number of campuses have armed police over the last decade, and he adds events like a recent stabbing at a Texas University illustrate why they're doing it. In cases like this, campus police are first responders, and Fox argues they need firearms do their job effectively.
Asked whether Rhode Island is likely to change its policy on arming campus police, Governor Lincoln Chafee suggested he would not rush to judgment.
"We're still looking at it an having a conversation about the cost, the liability, the training, the safety for both the officers and the students," Chafee said.
Safety for everyone on campus is of course what this debate is all about. The question is whether campus police will be prepared for more than just a false alarm. The Rhode Island Board of Education has no immediate plans to take up the arming of campus police, but a bill now pending at the Rhode Island Statehouse would allow campus police to carry guns.