ACPD Should Disarm Its Officers
Issue   |   Tue, 04/03/2018 - 19:57

The Amherst College Police Department’s (ACPD) mission statement says that it “will strive to gain the trust of the community.” This is a noble goal. Currently, one way ACPD officers demonstrate this is by doing walkthroughs of student dormitories and engaging in casual conversation with students. While this might be partially effective, there is one thing that ACPD could do that would make it a lot more effective: laying down their firearms when they’re doing walkthroughs of student dormitories. The ACPD should not carry firearms when conducting the parts of their job that involve interacting with students.

Personally, I have never lived in a house that contained firearms, and I never intend to. I am opposed to guns and don’t see the need to own one. It’s therefore unsettling to me to see a gun in my dormitory. The presence of guns in my dormitory, even if only occasional, makes it harder for me to think of it as home and to feel at ease there — especially when the guns appear unannounced. Although I am less affronted by it, I also feel a little uneasy when I see police officers armed when they eat at Val.

Guns stand out on a policeman’s belt. They are symbols of violence, brutality and death. As a child, I was scared of police officers or security guards that carried them in their holster. If we conceive of the role of campus police as one of community-building rather than strict law enforcement, then there is no reason why they need to carry symbols of death that inevitably make some students, including myself, uncomfortable.

Perhaps more to the point, carrying guns doesn’t make sense if the objective of the ACPD really is to develop a sense of community by integrating officers into student spaces. It can be hard to remember that someone who shows up in my dorm unannounced is actually here as part of a community-building mission, and that they’re here because they want to get to know students.

I’ve had brief conversations with ACPD officers and they’ve always been friendly, but in spite of this, I have never been able to distract myself from the gun that they carry on their belts. If the ACPD were to disarm themselves during walkthroughs of my dorm, I would view that as a significant gesture. It would tell me that they view their role as keeping me safe and not strictly policing me. It would prove to me that they have no intention of being part of the broken relationship many communities have with the police. It would also allow students who in the past have been given reasons to distrust police to regain some of that trust.

I can imagine many community situations in which it is necessary for police officers to be armed, and I don’t believe that the ACPD are in that situation. In America, it’s the standard for all police officers to be armed and to carry guns when on active duty, but it doesn’t have to be this way. In the United Kingdom, police officers don’t even carry guns. This works fine. The UK isn’t some crime-ridden island where people are afraid to go outside.

Now there are big differences between the UK and the US. For one, in America there is a mentality that we need and have a right to own guns. However, other countries, such as the UK, show that this just isn’t true. We don’t need guns in the hands of civilians, and in some cases, we don’t even need them in the hands of police. I know that this is wildly optimistic, but I believe that in an ideal society, the police would have enough control over the general order that they wouldn’t need guns. In many parts of America this is so far away from the reality that I think the police absolutely need guns, but at Amherst I’m not so sure.

I reached out to the ACPD and learned that no ACPD officer has discharged a firearm while on duty in at least the past 20 years. While writing this article, I have tried to imagine a situation in which an ACPD police officer would need a weapon on his or her walk-through of a student dormitory or in their duties around campus. If you flip to the second page of this issue, you’ll see the crime log. The crime log is so mundane that it’s comical in many instances. If you look through it, I think you’ll agree that in none of those incidents did the ACPD need to be armed, nor can I imagine a way in a which a firearm would be of even the slightest use.

I’ve talked to friends I have currently studying in Canada and the UK, and they were shocked to hear that armed police officers walking through my dorm was a normal occurrence. More surprisingly, I received similar shock from friends at American universities. This is not something that happens everywhere. Armed walkthroughs of student dormitories and the very presence of guns on campus are not universal college experiences.

The reason that Amherst is different from these schools that my friends attend is that the ACPD is not campus security. It is a police department in the same way the Amherst town police are. They don’t have as large a jurisdiction and don’t encounter as much crime, but they are a police department all the same. This distinction is the reason that my experience with police and guns at college has been so different from that of my friends; it is also the reason that the ACPD putting their guns down would be so meaningful.

The ACPD don’t use the guns they currently carry, and they also aren’t perpetrators of police brutality. For these reasons, disarming themselves during their interactions with college students wouldn’t have a profound impact on their work on-campus, but it would represent an important symbolic shift. Though not a problem at Amherst, improper police use of guns is a serious problem, as shown by far too many police shootings.

Far down the line, it would be nice to have a society where the police don’t need to carry guns. When the role of police is to respond to immediate violent threats, as it is in many parts of this country, then being armed is necessary. But when the role of police is more nuanced and rooted in crime prevention and community work, firearms are unnecessary. The ACPD should not carry weapons when interacting with students as a gesture that someday other police departments may follow and also as a way of showing off. The ACPD can put their guns away for everyday activities, and in doing so, they’re showing that they have kept and can continue keep the Amherst community safe without violence — something all police departments strive.

Anonymous (not verified) says:
Mon, 04/09/2018 - 20:56

I personally appreciate that there are responsible, armed officers on campus. The fact that all ACPD officers have used their weapons responsibly is proof that they know how to carry a weapon and deserve to continue to do so. I'm curious to hear more about your perspective. Did you grow up in the US? I ask because I'm interested why police "walkthroughs" concern you.

I hate internet anonymity, but I'm using it for now. I was searching for an April Fool's article and didn't anticipate crossing an opinion article that I felt strongly about (I didn't learn anything over my four years, apparently).