Because of rising concerns about college campus safety nationwide, Villanova University announced Monday that it will add armed police officers to its campus, beginning in Fall 2016.
The Catholic university currently has a 75-member public safety department, responsible for patrol, investigations, parking enforcement, residence hall and building security, crime prevention and special-event security.
But the department's security officers can't use lights or sirens when responding to an emergency on the 260-acre, Main Line campus, said Villanova spokesman Jonathan Gust. They can't stop, question or detain anyone without the individual's permission. They don't carry guns or any other defensive equipment. They do not have direct radio communication with local police departments, which can hinder communication in an emergency. And they lack access to local law enforcement databases, which could help in an investigation.
"They currently have significant challenges responding to emergencies on campus," Gust said.
Under the new arrangement, 19 members - about 20 percent - will become armed officers, who will have completed police academy training, Gust said. Eventually, two or three officers will work with campus security officers during any given shift, the school said.
The Rev. Peter M. Donohue, president of the university, announced the change to the more than 10,000-student campus in an email Monday afternoon. The decision follows a two-year study by a university task force and work by an independent consultant.
Many colleges, including the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel and Temple, already have extensive armed police forces. Nationwide, about three quarters of four-year college campuses with 2,500 or more students had armed police officers in 2011-12, according to a report by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Among them are Boston College and Notre Dame University - two other prestigious Catholic universities.
Villanova's decision comes as college campuses, locally and nationally, have faced increasing security threats. Gust pointed out that there have been about 100 college campus shootings since the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, where 32 people were killed and 17 wounded.
Earlier this month, universities across the Philadelphia region were on heightened alert when federal law enforcement said a threat had been made for a specific date and time - which came and went without incident. A day later, the Community College of Philadelphia was on lock down after a report with someone with a gun; a gun was not found.
"Many in our community expressed to me how shaken they were two weeks ago with the threat to Philadelphia-area colleges and universities," the Rev. Donohue said in his email. "My greatest fear is the loss of a member of our community, particularly as a result of violence on our campus. This decision simply comes down to protecting our community in a time when violent acts at educational institutions are on an alarming upward trend."
Ken Valosky, Villanova's executive vice president, who oversees the public safety department, also underscored the importance of the move.
"At Villanova, we value and embrace the concept of an open campus, but we must not overlook the exposure that comes with it," he said. "With three train stations on campus, close proximity to a major highway and hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, the combination of police and campus security officers will be able to provide a higher level of campus safety."