University of Rhode Island police to carry guns

A Rhode Island State police officer holds a shotgun outside Chafee Hall on the campus of the University of Rhode Island after the school ordered a lockdown of the campus in South Kingstown, R.I., Thursday, April 4, 2013.

University of Rhode Island campus police will soon carry guns under a new policy announced Monday, ending the school's status as the only public university in the country where campus police do not carry firearms.

"In order to provide the safest environment possible and to ensure a timely response to any threat to the safety of our campuses, our police officers must be equipped properly to function as first responders," university President David Dooley said in a statement announcing his decision.

The announcement came a little more than a year after a gun scare at the university's main campus in South Kingstown, when a panic was set off after people inside a lecture hall said they heard someone say they had a gun. Police found no weapon.

Campus police were at the scene in under a minute, but they had to wait around five minutes for armed police from South Kingstown to arrive, said Director of Public Safety Stephen Baker.

"It really showed what would happen if indeed there was an active shooter on campus," Baker said.

"I think what changed is that we got real solid evidence that there were issues, that we did need to have a force that would prepare to be the first responders in the case of the kind of incident that one hopes to never actually go through," Dooley said.

Students were pleased with the decision.

"It's great that campus police are getting guns just because of everything that's happened around the world, and I think we need more protection around here for every student because we never know what's going to happen," said URI student Annie Messner.

Not everyone supported the change. URI's faculty union argued there was no evidence arming campus police would increase public safety.

In May 2013, the Rhode Island Board of Education voted 8-1 to allow leaders at the state's three institutions of higher education to decide for themselves whether to arm campus police.

Baker said they are now working on policies for things such as use of force and carrying firearms. They are also training officers on areas such as mental illness and multiculturalism, and every officer will be required to do a two-week firearms training with the state police. A committee made up of faculty, students, staff and law enforcement will oversee what policies and procedures are put into effect.

Baker says many of the officers in his department have carried firearms in other police departments, or as members of the military. He expects his officers will be trained and ready to carry guns by the spring semester of next year.

"They want to be first responders for every type of situation. This will give us that ability," he said.

"If I arrived at a situation and I cannot protect myself, how can I protect everyone else, which is what I'm sworn to do," said URI police officer Michael Novak.

NBC 10 contributed to this report.