RNC officers in class shouldn’t be allowed to carry firearms: MUN’s grad students’ union head says
The president of Memorial University’s Graduate Students’ Union says the school’s recent decision to allow RNC officers taking classes to carry firearms will escalate violence and normalizes excessive police force.
Joey Donnelly told The Telegram Friday he decided to speak out against the regulation change — which was passed by MUN’s senate in November — after an RNC officer’s weapon was fired during an attempted arrest on Tuesday.
Police were trying to catch a man they say was breaking into cars. The RNC says the suspect fled in a stolen SUV, which is when an officer fired a single shot.
Justin Michael Chipman, 26, of St. John’s was arrested the next day and is facing several charges, including assault with a weapon and assaulting a police officer. The RNC have asked the RCMP to conduct an independent investigation into the firearm discharge.
Donnelly was one of four university senators who voted against the rule change that allows uniformed officers attending classes while on active duty to carry firearms with written permission from the manager of Campus Enforcement and Patrol.
There were four abstentions, and 39 votes in favour of allowing the change.
“In a learning environment, guns certainly don’t belong, and in the classroom, certainly not,” he said. “It makes students uncomfortable just knowing that there is a weapon on campus.”
Donnelly acknowledged that Tuesday’s shooting is different from uniformed officers carrying guns in class, but says he has concerns about that incident as well and fears it’s indicative of a normalization of excessive police force.
“A lot of these officers were in plain clothes,” he said. “I feel like when you’re having a sting operation for, essentially, a car thief, and a firearm is actually used by an officer at campus, I think that just raises a lot of questions about the excessive use of force by police officers and what kind of environment we’re creating that actually allows for that to happen.”
Bert Riggs, chairman of the senate committee on undergraduate studies, said the rule change came about because Memorial University has had a police studies program for nearly a decade.
“They attend class according to the schedule that classes are set; however, they also have to be on duty for some of those classes, and are given a short period of time — usually an hour or two hours, whatever it is — to attend those classes,” he said, adding that it’s usually around three or four classes per semester when an officer might be on duty in class. “Because they are on duty, they are required to carry their firearms with them.”
Officers not on duty during class don’t wear their uniforms, he said.
Memorial’s Campus Enforcement and Patrol received a request from the RNC to change the regulations to allow officers to carry their guns while attending classes, but only while the officers are on duty.
The undergraduate studies committee considered the request, including consideration of how other campuses handle such regulations, before drafting a resolution to make the change, which was then forwarded to the senate for debate and voting. Besides approving the rule change, the senate also recommended developing a formal weapons policy.
The MUN senate meeting in November that voted in the regulation change included an appearance by
Sgt. Bill James of the RNC, who gave a presentation on firearm safety and answered questions. James said officers are required to wear uniforms while on duty, and firearms are a mandatory part of the uniform.
“(James) went over the safety precautions that are taken, how there’s a three-step process for an officer to get the gun out of his holster,” said Riggs. “He answered a battery of questions from the senators who were there, and they were not gentle questions, by any means.”
Riggs said the university is satisfied the regulation change won’t, as Donnelly suggests, make students less safe, because police already have the right to be armed on campus.
“The police have the right to enter campus or any other place in this city, in this province, when they’re carrying out their duty,” he said. “To me, what happened here on campus earlier this week was the RNC, in the course of carrying out their reponsibilities to protect the public.”
Riggs noted the university has a cashier’s office that accepts cash that’s routinely picked up by an armed Brinks guard.
“He is performing his duty,” he said. “We would not be able to get one of those companies to come here and take our money without agreeing to allow it. There are exceptions to every regulation for practical purposes.”
The RNC did not respond to a request for an interview.
See related letter, page B7