This article originally appeared in USC’s Daily Trojan on Sept. 10, 2014
This summer, as the world watched the growth of police militarization in Ferguson, Missouri following the fatal shooting death of a teenager by a police officer, the school board in Compton, California passed a policy to allow campus police to carry assault rifles while on duty. The school board said it was responding to the prevalence of shooting sprees in the nation in recent years. Though it was intended to be a security measure, the Compton school board’s decision to address a larger social issue with more force will simply create more problems.
The policy allowing police to store semi-automatic AR-15 assault rifles in their patrol car trunks will go into effect as students head back to school this fall, according to the Washington Times. When the school board met in July to vote on this policy, its members reasoned that school officials needed firearms to properly protect students if a threat arose inside the school buildings.
The police force in the city defended the decision. Citing an FBI study, Compton Unified Police Chief William Wu said that roughly 5 percent of mass shooters have used similar firearms.
“This is our main objective — save lives, bottom line,” Wu told the school board.
Arming police with these heavy weapons around school children has the potential to cause more harm than help, however.
According to Pentagon data obtained and published by The New York Times, police departments have received tens of thousands of machine guns and accessories during President Barack Obama’s administration. Reports suggest that grants from Homeland Security allowed small towns to purchase tanks and other military equipment. Ferguson was one of those cities. A strong argument that came out of the Ferguson situation was that the small town police officers do not know proper safety etiquette when using their weapons. Several pictures documented Ferguson police officers with their guns drawn and aimed at civilians who had their hands raised.
Several gun companies, including Magtech Ammunition, recommend that “before you pick up or accept a gun from someone, make sure you know how it works” as a safety precaution.
Compton campus officers have been given proper training before receiving their weapons, according to The Atlantic. The training, though, must be thorough to ensure officers know the proper steps in order to make a positive impact.
Additionally, access to assault rifles might cause distractions to the learning environment that the Compton school system is looking to create. The city has a long-held reputation as a place of danger and violence by the police and against violence both by and against the police. As a result, like many urban schools, the Compton school police are already situated inside the school to provide security for day-to-day happenings. Officers should not shift a large focus of their jobs to planning for possible worst-case scenarios. It should maintain focus on normal security concerns and address students in an approachable manner.
Compton’s school board is not the first one in California to authorize its police to carry firearms in a manner reminiscent of a war zone. School police in Los Angeles and San Diego are currently allowed to carry assault rifles in a limited capacity. These school systems, too, are headed in the wrong direction if they are truly committed to curbing violence in schools.
The local police union in Compton reasoned, “If we encounter an active mass murderer on campus with a rifle or body armor, our officers may not adequately be prepared to stop that suspect.” But what if officers encounter a student that just looks like he or she has a deadly object? In such a case, what if they accidentally misuse their firearms?
The response to reach for more guns in this country when we feel the need for protection is flawed. Instead, we need to reach out to others and discuss the deficiencies in society and the reason why violence is so prevalent. Attacking the underlying problem of a culture of violence in the United States should not be done with more force. Yes, the normalization of campus shooters needs to be addressed. Law enforcement, school administration and the communities, however, should not just simply arm themselves. They must look at the root causes of the shootings that are occurring more frequently on campuses.
Since the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012 in which 26 children and teachers were killed in a mass shooting, there have been 10 instances of intentional mass shootings on school campuses, according to Politifact. Americans regularly hear about shootings in deemed “safe” places, such as schools, movie theaters and the workplace.
Drawing on past experience to make the future safer is a wise choice. Allowing school police the ability to draw weapons on perceived threats, however, is not the solution. In the face of danger, police militarization might seem like the way to go, but an honest conversation about the root issues of these shootings is what’s truly needed in school zones in California and throughout the nation.