Q and A with Public Safety
by Alyssa Jackson | published Feb. 5th, 2016
In December, Reporter broke a story regarding the availability of long guns to a select few of the Public Safety officers in the case of an active shooter or deadly threat on campus. Although President Bill Destler sent out an official statement concerning the change, many RIT students still had questions. Wesat down with RIT's director of Public Safety, Chris Denninger, and asked him questions submitted by our readers on Reddit.
Reporter: To start off, can you just generally explain what the new policy will entail?
Chris Denninger: Yeah, you know, that word "policy," it's not really a policy. I mean, I don't think you're going to see this operational change in any RIT policies. Departmentally is where the policy changes are going to be, with Public Safety. We'll have policies and procedures outlining what the expectations are of these specially trained officers, and that won't happen until the new manager is hired. This new manager will have a skills set that our current team doesn't have at the policy level in law enforcement, where this type of training and skills sets are a part of what they do. We need to tap into that. So, I can't really share what the policies will look like. I will later. I think once we get the new manager on staff, we will be as transparent as you (Reporter) and/or Student Government (SG) would like. We'll share information every step along the way. We think that's the right thing to do because of current feedback.
R: Can you give me a rough timeline of when this discussion started among administrators before it was finally decided upon?
CD: I'll go back 12 months. I'll say 12 months ago for research and discussions, options were looked at, both internally and externally. We have an internal group here within our department which consisted of me and my manager, John Zink. He's the Associate Vice President (AVP) for Global Risk Management. We looked at several options, some of which included "Okay, do we want a police presence on campus? Do we think it's important to have our officers be police officers and armed? Is it important to continue as is, as civilian employees, without being armed? Or civilian employees or staff being armed?" This last option seemed to be a reasonable approach for augmenting safety and security on campus. You have to remember this is really one of the last puzzle pieces that needed to be looked at and implemented. We have the RIT alert system for communication, we have the Student Behavioral Consultation team — which really looks at students in need to make sure they're successful — and we have our training, campus-wide training on early intervention, which is required for all faculty and staff. All those puzzle pieces have been in place since Virginia Tech. This one just seemed to make sense and fit within those other capabilities that I mentioned.
R: Now, you mentioned a committee within the department? Other than Public Safety, what other facets of the institution were involved in the committee or in the decision process?
CD: It was an internal committee within the department. I can't speak for outside of our department. I knew there were other discussions with the administration. I know legal affairs was also a part of our team because legal affairs has work to do relative to what civilians can carry on a college campus. There are laws out there, so if you've ever read the Safe Act, which I'm sure you have in New York state, there are certain restrictions in terms of what civilians can use, in terms of what type of firearm. And then externally we worked with local law enforcement, just to run certain ideas, options and concepts by them as well. We can't just work independently without having all of those partners involved.
R: I know that at the SG meeting concerning this, it was mentioned that students weren't necessarily involved in the process beforehand for security measures. Will there be an effort to involve students on these committees as policies are made now?
CD: Yeah, that will start actually with, from what I'm told and I'm hoping it's true, having students involved as early on as selecting the new manager. Now, I don't know from an operational standpoint if there's value added at this point because we don't have that new manager on board yet. So, just the internal workings of policy development and procedure development, a lot of policies are already a part of police departments, operations. We're going to mirror the best practices related to responding to an active shooter. A lot of the training and practices are already in place. I don't think that's really going to need faculty, staff and student involvement in the policy development. Where the rubber hits the road is communicating changes for our community without giving away the story on all the nitty gritty.
R: A lot of confusion revolves around what Public Safety officers have now to help in a dangerous situation. I know you can't carry tasers per New York state law, but do you have other means?
CD: Pepper spray, training, communication skills and handcuffs are all the tools that we have now.
R: Along with the guns, will there be non-lethal rounds that you will have?
R: So, only bullets? No rubber bullets or anything like that?
CD: That's correct, yeah. The new manager will have more expertise as to why that is. If I gave you my opinion now, it would really be an uninformed opinion.
R: Are there other non-lethal things that may be brought in the future?
CD: Remember, this objective is really providing an armed response to contain an active shooter situation or a situation that entails deadly force or a situation that involves a deadly weapon. So the non-deadly tools or methods that we just talked about, like rubber bullets, when there's a situation involving deadly force, it would be hard to justify why a non-deadly option was utilized to neutralize a situation where deadly force is being used, right?
R: One of the things that a lot of students are concerned about is when exactly these guns will be used. Something that keeps getting brought up is the Colony 2004 incident, in which a large party was thrown and Monroe County Sheriffs arrived in riot gear to stop the party. Obviously Public Safety wasn't involved, but students are wondering if incidents like that warrant an armed response.
CD: No. The window is very tight and very small for when a firearm would be deployed. So, God forbid, if a situation like that were to happen during the assessment, the original, initial assessment, there will be key factors and questions and information that we're going to be looking for. When something this devastating happens, the phone call volume is huge. We have to pull apart what's happening, who's involved, what type of force is being used. As that's assessed, that window is going to be very small. I've heard those questions as well, regarding, will they be deployed for non-emergencies? Absolutely not. The window is very, very small.
R: Along those lines, what will meet the criteria that will warrant the use of a gun?
CD: I just mentioned it. Deadly physical force will have to be reported and verified, where a deadly weapon is being used against others.
R: Say, hypothetically, someone wanders onto campus and they have a gun but they haven't used it. Would firearms be used against him?
CD: That's difficult to answer. Hypotheticals will be used in training, so we're not there yet. We will get that type of training at the Public Safety training center, and that's where hypotheticals are turned into practical training. That type of training is "Okay, here's the situation. This is the corporate response, this is what New York says you can do as civilian staff at RIT relative to a response." There are probably an unlimited number of hypotheticals that we could probably talk about all day. I'd rather not, at this point. I'd rather have the hiring done, the training done, the weapons purchased, policy developed, procedures developed. I think that's a very fair question, I'm just not there yet relative to be able to provide all the answers.
R: Only a select number of officers will have access to these guns, but will all officers be trained, just in case a situation arises?
CD: Yes, here's why: let's say there's a situation where the gun is separated from the officer for whatever reason. In order to safely handle that firearm, officers would have to be trained in the safe handling. And I mean safe handling, I don't mean pick it up and start using it. I mean safe handling for proper storage.
R: What percentage of officers will be trained, and how many guns per trained officer will there be?
CD: I'll say a third of the staff will be trained. We need two officers per shift around the clock, 24/7, 365 days. So that roughly entails that a third of the department, once we have our new staff hired. The nice thing about this new addition, we're going to bolster our current staffing levels as well.
R: You've mentioned you will be hiring a specialist. What kind of qualifications are you looking for in that person?
CD: We're looking for a person who has policy level experience in law enforcement. Policy level means they were a decision maker in their prior employer. If they were a lieutenant, maybe a lieutenant or higher, that was in a decision making role, that would be great. Also, someone who has experience in specialized emergency response team training. We need someone that has experience developing a team, controlling the team, training team members. We need that skills set here on campus. I'd like [this person] to be brought on this fiscal year, but we haven't cemented our search committee yet. So, once we know who the search committee members will be, then we can move forward.
R: Do you have hopes of implementing the new person and all of the changes by next school year?
CD: That's the goal. I mean it's an aggressive goal, but I think it's important to have that goal. To have a stake in the ground for when fall semester starts. But, I can only keep people apprised as time moves on.
R: Will you have, in the training, anything focusing on the diversity of the campus?
CD: Yeah, we get that training now through the diversity office and Center for Professional Development (CPD), but I know how important that is for our community, largely because of what's happened in the United States over the last several years with firearms and police departments. The answer is yes, but I think what's really, really important [is that] firearms are not going to be used in the day to day operations of the department. You're not going to see sidearms. That's important because a sidearm is not going to every possible situation on campus. Secondly, we talked about the window being tight in terms of when a long gun would be deployed. I think that helps with community members knowing that "An officer is now at a situation where someone's intoxicated," or "An officer is handling a simple noise complaint," firearms aren't going to be there. No matter what the gender or nationality or look the person is, that concern shouldn't be there. I know it will be initially, but I think once you get the word out in this article and as we move forward with this initiative, I'm hoping to dispel all those fears.
R: In general, is there a process for an officer if they abuse their power in any type of facet?
CD: We have services within the organization. One's inspectional services, and the other manager handles complaints, also known as professional standards. We have a professional standards manager, depending on the nature of the complaint, who will issue an investigation. Either that officer's shift supervisor or one of our investigators will investigate the complaint. Once that complaint is done, that manager makes a recommendation to me. "Chris, here is the information that supported the complaint, here is the information that refuted the complaint." They'll weigh that up and they'll make a recommendation to me as to whether the complaint is sustained, exonerated or not sustained. Not sustained means we have information that both supports and refutes the complaint and at this point it's impossible to tell whether we can sustain it. But we have a lot of tools. Technology is out there, there are witnesses. What we really look for is that third party, objective witness, who didn't know the officer or the person, who happened to be a bystander in that situation in which the complaint generated from, who can really provide "Here's what I heard," or "Here's what I saw." That third party, independent witness is important.
Let's say a complaint is sustained, so an officer went beyond the expectations of the job. RIT has a progressive discipline process. If the complaint was sustained, we would go to [Human Resources (HR)] and say "This happened, it's been sustained, here's what I'm going to do as the director of Public Safety. What are your thoughts? How does this fit with RIT's framework for discipline?" Then we move ahead and provide that remedial response. It isn't just discipline, if someone made a mistake and they had the training, we'll remediate and retrain that person. That's just not for our officers, that's why RIT has standards. That's applicable to any staff member at RIT.
R: Let's say someone saw a situation or was a part of a situation that they weren't very comfortable with and they don't feel comfortable coming to Public Safety. Are there other offices?
CD: Absolutely. There's the HR office, the Ombuds office, there's an ethics hotline. I know it's a third party that monitors the ethics hotline. If it's a supervisory matter, I know that that particular complaint will be assigned to that department head, if it's a supervisory or operational matter. If it is an ethics issue, I know HR will investigate. I also know Dr. Destler would like to know firsthand if there are complaints against my staff; he's openly mentioned that.
To learn more about the background information regarding the upcoming changes to Public Safety, please visit the FAQ compiled by RIT University News.