Campus police reassure Mesa about student safety

Kate Fraser, Staff Writer

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Following the recent shootings at community colleges elsewhere in the country, it’s understandable to wonder about what would happen if a gunman began firing on the Mesa College campus. Students and faculty can rest assured that their campus police have an effective system in the event of such a situation.

Most students report feeling like they are safe on campus. “They’ve got the police station on campus and I see the police going around pretty often,” said Mesa student Jack Davidson, “so I don’t think they’d have as much trouble with [a shooter] as other schools.”

Davidson’s trust is well-placed. “We’ve never had an active shooter case at one of our community colleges,” said College Police Lieutenant Jack Doherty of the San Diego Community College District. Mesa College students and staff should feel confident that their officers are prepared to handle such an attack.

Although there may be as few as two or three officers on campus during class hours, these officers are trained to isolate a gunman, and San Diego Police Department would be able to respond within just 5 to 10 minutes.

One or more of SDPD’s Primary Response Team units – which consist of police officers and SWAT members on routine patrol, but who have specialty weapons for necessary situations –-could be on site very quickly while a full SWAT response was being assembled.

Mesa student Jorge Sanchez wasn’t surprised to hear about this system. “There’s the fact that it’s a school, and there are so many students that you have to protect. There had to be some way that they compensate for numbers.”

Lockdown procedures are not generally used in these kinds of situations. “In the college and university environment, you can’t lock people in,” said Doherty. Noting that individuals in a classroom can choose to lock themselves down, he explained how students should protect themselves, which varies depending on whether a student is in direct contact with the shooter or if he or she hears gunshots elsewhere on the campus.

“In a nutshell, I would say, use your head. If you’re not actively involved in it, and can move away from it, then move away from it. If you are actively involved – the gunshots are in your building – then it begins with the same advice. If you can leave the building, leave the building. If you don’t feel like you can leave, then the next best thing is essentially to try to make it difficult for the active shooter to get to you.”

Doherty said that some ways of doing this would be locking or barricading a door or going into a closet. “At last resort, you fight, using whatever happens to be close to you.”

It’s important to remember that there are a very limited number of active shooter cases in San Diego County, and that an attack on our campus is highly unlikely. The recent shootings at Lone Star Community College in Houston, Texas, and Hazard Community and Technical College in Hazard, Kentucky, were driven by personal matters and did not directly threaten other students or staff on the campuses.

Doherty explained that the last decade has seen a shift in how active shooter situations are dealt with. “Over the last ten years, there has been a change in the training and the expectations of field officers to have these folks actually engage an active shooter.”

Although patrols do not have all the resources that a SWAT team may have, they are still trained to respond effectively. Officers train regularly at the Regional Law Enforcement Training Center at Miramar College and also conduct drills twice annually on the various campuses to make their training realistic.

“Our officers are some of the most highly trained police officers in California when it comes to responding to an active shooter threat on campus,” said SDCCD Police Chief Hogquist in a safety bulletin to faculty at the beginning of the Spring 2013 semester.

In fact, their active shooter response training is so effective that they have conducted training community colleges in other parts of the state. “The last one we went to was San Jose, and put on some training that involved both the San Jose Community College Police and the San Jose Police Department.”

This training, in combination with their familiarity with the campuses, enables officers to manage situations as they arise. Additionally, police use a threat assessment program when suspicious activity is brought to their attention. This response includes law enforcement, the Dean of Student Affairs, and the psychological counseling group on campus.

Doherty, who said that they have handled several of these cases, explained the process. “Depending on the situation, we try to get the person some assistance; confront them over what we’re seeing or what we’re being told.”

Recognizing the ease of modern technology, the district has been taking steps to improve its ability to communicate with faculty, students and visitors. More emergency call boxes have been installed on campus, particularly near parking lots, to allow direct contact with the police in the case of emergency. Students are also being asked to provide their cell phone numbers so that a mass text could be issued if necessary.

“We would really like everyone on campus to have the phone number of the college police programmed in their cell phone,” said Doherty, encouraging students and faculty to report suspicious activity. “The faster information gets communicated to us, the faster we can respond to it, and the faster we can alert outside agencies to respond and assist.”

The phone number for the Mesa College Police is (619)388-2749.

“The message behind all of this is,” said Doherty, “if you see something, say something.”

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Campus police reassure Mesa about student safety