Report: Arm URI officers, enhance alert system

The University of Rhode Island has recommended improvements to its emergency alert system and the arming of campus police after reports of a gunman on campus last month prompted a university lockdown.

The suggestions come from a preliminary internal review of the university's response to the April 4 incident, in which people inside a lecture hall said they heard someone say they had a gun. Police found no gun or shooter.

While on-campus officers arrived quickly at Chafee Hall after calls of an incident there, the first emergency alert -- designed to send news and instructions to the campus community by text, phone or email -- didn't go out until 31 minutes later, according to a timeline provided by Major Stephen Baker, the campus police chief.

URI Vice President for Administration and Finance Robert A. Weygand, who helped compile the report, said Baker tried by telephone to have the alert system activated, but the lines were "overwhelmed," which caused a delay.

The campus "blue light" alert system, which broadcasts messages from phones around campus, also was not activated until 39 minutes after the first calls "after an initial attempt failed," according to the timeline. Weygand said there were also problems with the system once it was activated, including with sound quality and volume and the frequency of messages.

He said URI is upgrading that system, as well as other aspects of its communication infrastructure. It also will reduce the number of approvals required to send an emergency alert.

Weygand said the arming of campus officers is necessary to improve response time. While the first campus police arrived within about a minute, officers could not enter the building because they weren't armed. It took South Kingstown police about six minutes to arrive and go inside. State police arrived within about a half-hour.

"We have to protect the lives of our faculty, our staff and our students," Weygand said. "We just cannot take that long."

State lawmakers on Thursday will review legislation that would allow campus police to carry firearms. Rhode Island is the only state in the nation that prohibits public university police from carrying guns.

"These are trained police and they should be armed," said state Rep. Doreen Costa, a North Kingstown Republican who is a sponsor of the legislation. "That incident showed that this is an issue of basic safety for students."