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Bill would grant RISD officers power of arrest

A bill currently before the Rhode Island General Assembly would give Rhode Island School of Design police officers the power to make arrests. The bill, introduced by State Rep. Helio Melo, D-East Providence, would give RISD police the title of "peace officers," which carries with it the right to search, detain and arrest people suspected of committing crime.

Both Brown and the University of Rhode Island police officers already have these powers.

"It's just a matter of better equipping our public safety officers to do their jobs even better," said Jaime Marland, a spokesperson for RISD.

The bill also includes a provision that would allow RISD public safety officers to train at the Rhode Island Municipal Police Training Academy — an addition Melo cited as the inspiration for the bill. Kenneth Bilodeau, directory of security at RISD, wanted to be able to send officers to the academy, Melo said, "and the only way to do that is if you're listed as a peace officer."

Melo said the bill was in no way connected to an incident last October in which a trespassing suspect being restrained by RISD public safety officers was allegedly beaten by a Providence Police detective. He pointed to a bill introduced last year ­— before the incident — by State Rep. Timothy Williamson, D-West Warwick, that would have granted RISD officers the same powers.

Williamson's bill was "introduced late into the season and just ran out of time, and we have the intention of continuing that particular bill," Melo said.

"It's not in response to any increase or decrease in crime," Marland added. "It's just a matter of being able to be better equipped to deal with basic quality of life issues, like trespassing, vandalism, larceny, that Brown and URI are able to handle themselves."

Suzannah Hallagan, a junior at RISD, expressed concern about giving RISD officers the power to arrest. RISD's policies are "already quite stringent, far more than Brown's," she said. She said she attended a party where she had not been drinking but was "caught" there and ended up having to serve more volunteer hours than the party's hosts. "I think that's pretty indicative of a kind of poor policy to start with," she said.

Calvin Dunwoody, another junior at RISD, said he "tentatively" agreed with the bill. "RISD is a legitimate school — two other legitimate schools in Providence have this ability, so then why not? It's only logical."

Dunwoody said that last year a friend of his was beaten up right outside the public safety department, and said the bill would make students more safe. But he voiced the same concerns as Hallagan about RISD's strict policies. "I can't really think of a very good circumstance where I think it would be acceptable for a RISD police officer to arrest a student," he said.

He added, "I don't always feel that RISD police officers have the students' best interests at heart."

Although the law would only expand the officers' powers on RISD's campus, Brown students also expressed some apprehensions as to the bill's effect. Maura Eggink '13 acknowledged the general leniency of Brown's safety officers. "Sometimes they'll give you a warning but they're not scary at all," she said. Given RISD's stricter policies, she said the bill "might change the way Brown students act" near and on RISD's campus.

"This bill is more to protect the interests of all students," Marland said. "We're not looking to go out and make a bunch of arrests or crack down on anything. … It's about allowing our public safety officers to do a better job in terms of taking care of everyone."

The bill was heard in the House Committee on Judiciary early last week, and the committee will hear testimony from Bilodeau this week before making a decision, according to Melo.


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