Rhode Island School of Design wants its public safety officers to be able to make arrests, and a bill in the state's General Assembly would give these officers the authorization to do just that. We encourage the General Assembly to pass the bill.
Currently, RISD public safety officers can only make citizen's arrests, which are permitted if an officer witnesses a felony or is explicitly asked by state-sanctioned police to assist in an arrest. The bill would designate members of RISD's department of public safety as peace officers, which would give them the authority to search, detain and arrest suspects if there is probable cause that suspect has committed a crime. Campus police at Brown, the University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College are all recognized as peace officers. RISD is not currently seeking to arm its officers, which would require additional authorization from the state.
RISD has been pushing for the peace officer designation since last year, and we see no reason for it to be denied. There are over 2,000 students at RISD and the school is not quite crime-free. According to Tuesday's Providence Journal, the school reported five burglaries and two sexual assaults in 2008. Campus police should have the power to better protect the RISD community and deal with manageable incidents themselves.
Forcing RISD public safety officers to wait for backup from the Providence Police can create confusion and allow a situation to deteriorate. Additionally, the RISD department of public safety has a familiarity with the school that will allow it to better respond to campus incidents and matters involving students.
While we support RISD's request, we don't expect that this new power will be used with increasing frequency. Arrests are almost never the best way to respond to student conduct issues. A change in the department's status should aim to make students safer without increasing the number of students who find themselves in handcuffs.
This bill is especially appropriate in light of recent events. On Oct. 20, RISD public safety officers caught Luis Mendonca, 20, of Pawtucket, attempting to break into a RISD dorm. The officers called for backup from Providence Police, but ultimately decided to let the man go. Instead of leaving peacefully, however, Mendonca assaulted the RISD officers and fled the scene. Eventually, several Providence Police officers caught up with Mendonca in a parking lot, leading to a violent encounter that briefly left him in a coma. The Providence Police officer responsible for Mendonca's injuries has since been charged with assault, and Mendonca himself was convicted of assaulting the RISD officers.
A spokesperson for RISD told the Providence Journal that the request is not the result of any particular event. But when we consider the circumstances of the October incident, we think that the power to arrest certainly would not have made things worse.
The status of the RISD officers and their actions that night certainly didn't cause the lamentable outcome that left Mendonca seriously injured. But had the RISD officers' powers been slightly broader, their initial confrontation with Mendonca perhaps could have gone differently. Nonetheless, even irrespective of this counterfactual, the General Assembly still has reason to pass the bill as soon as possible.
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