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Don't Shoot! Guns, Protests and Police

by on December 16, 2014 6:15 AM

I believe by now everyone has heard of Ferguson, Mo. and the shooting death of African-American resident Michael Brown by a white police officer.

The grand jury decision not to issue an indictment in that shooting has triggered an outpouring of protests across the nation, and that includes the Penn State campus.

There was a stir when Penn State President Eric Barron took part in a peaceful demonstration and was photographed with students in the "hands up" pose. A state legislator viewed Barron's actions as a slap in the face to law enforcement and demanded an apology.

Barron released a statement and explained his actions thusly, "We have a portion of our population who feels more vulnerable by virtue of their appearance. Our students faced this dilemma ... with a thoughtful and peaceful process that demonstrated their concerns."

Interestingly, this reminded me of a time when I was a student here at Penn State and all students began to feel more vulnerable by virtue of their appearance. You see, when I was a freshman in the fall of 1977, it wasn't possible for any student, regardless of race, to be shot by a police officer on campus. Why? Because Penn State police didn't carry guns.

That all changed at 11:30 p.m. on Monday, November 6, 1978. University Provost Edward Eddy, in his capacity as acting president while University President John Oswald was on a medical leave of absence, issued a decision that allowed the arming of 33 University Police Services officers.

This was a decision that had been discussed publicly for more than a month, resulting in very strong opinions on both sides. In the pre-internet/cell-phone era the methods for expressing our displeasure at this possibility included writing letters to The Daily Collegian, hanging posters and flyers, and wearing buttons. My button – which I still have – is pictured at the top of this column. One of the popular posters around town read, "Welcome to Penn State. You're #1" and in the center was a picture of a hand pointing a pistol right at you.

In those heady days of fall 1978, the University Council, an advisory committee to the university president, was tasked with making a recommendation to Provost Eddy about whether he should give campus police guns or not. The chairman of that council was fond of reminding we not-yet-wise-in-the-ways-of-the-world students that 1) campus police had guns in the past – until April 1956, 2) some of those officers received a grand total of three days of on-the-job training before being handed a gun, and 3) even student members of police services were sometimes allowed to have them. And yet nothing tragic had ever happened.

It was also pointed out to us there were already five people on campus "packing heat" – a naval intelligence officer, three FBI agents, and one undercover narcotics agent (the admission of the last one caused quite a stir within certain circles on campus). All of which was supposed to ameliorate our concerns about suddenly being policed by cops with guns.

In what seemed like a dark time for student activism – the 60's were long gone – the decision we were sure was predetermined was announced and University Police Services officers began receiving .38 caliber Smith and Wesson model 36's, known within the industry as the Chiefs Special. Their stated use was limited to one and only one occasion – the defense of life.

Not surprisingly, nothing much outwardly changed. Two years later only once had an officer drawn a weapon – and that was to put down two deer that were dying in a field after breaking through windows in Johnston Dining Hall.

But something had changed – one last bastion of peaceful governance had disappeared into the void of conformity. As the director of public safety at Cornell University had told the University Council, "I wouldn't be involved in law enforcement responsibilities without firearms," and Penn State had listened, benchmarked, and adopted the status quo.

These 36 years later we enjoy life here in Happy Valley, with rarely a gunshot fired from any local police forces, let alone on campus. My guess is if you ask University Police Services personnel whether being armed makes a difference in their daily lives, that they would say 99.9% of the time their day would be identical whether they had a gun or not. And that is a great thing for all of us.

The local police officers I know are fine upstanding people who personify the "protect and serve the community" mantra. In the last 30 years I've only had one instance where I was pulled over in a vehicle and interacted with the local police as the "alleged guilty party." Luckily as a 6'4" 220-pound White male in this town I didn't feel overly threatened during this interaction, but the officer approached my vehicle in a defensive stance, visibly following a protocol to act properly and for his safety if I should suddenly turn violent. And all I wanted to do was get my wallet out of my back pocket.

But there are those who don't live in Happy Valley, who are in communities around the country where their interactions with authorities are not like mine. Communities where an officer with a gun might be a thing to be feared and where fight or flight instincts might take hold. And that's a sad thing.

The question, of course, is how do we make that not the case? One possibility is that between 1956 and 1978 Penn State had it right. But whether that's realistic or not, what we do know is that "Don't Shoot" is a problem that needs an answer, and although it's not a part of our daily life here in Happy Valley, eventually the rest of the world catches up with us.

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John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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