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According to documents received through a Freedom of Information Law request by student journalists at Hunter College, the university's security division has acquired an alarming arms cache even as budget cuts at CUNY have curtailed purchases of library books. Thirty-five pages of receipts reveal that in addition to the $30,000 worth of ammunition, CUNY purchased 390 rounds of shotgun ammo and nine Glock automatic pistols with nightsights. Records show that CUNY also bought more than 400 mace/pepper spray dispensers, hundreds of extending batons, and body armor and riot helmets.
Faculty and students see the purchases as the most threatening step yet that the CUNY administration has taken to suppress campus activism. But CUNY officials brush off this anxious reaction. According to CUNY spokesperson Rita Rodin, the shotguns and automatic weapons are required by a training course that six CUNY peace officers took from the FBI to be certified as firearms instructors. But for CUNY activists, that simply begs the question: why should CUNY be training security in the use of firearms at all? A recently drafted faculty senate resolution calls for the complete disarming of CUNY security.
Neither SUNY colleges nor private schools in New York City authorize guards to use guns, says state assembly member Ed Sullivan, higher education committee chair, and CUNY has one of the lowest campus crime rates in the country. "In fact," says Sullivan, "CUNY assures me that security has never even drawn a gun. So why do they need them? The notion that CUNY campuses are dangerous is simply false, and I have to say has a racist tint to it."
Rodin says that CUNY security uses only .38 caliber pistols and may carry them only when specifically asked to do so by a college president. "The FBI requires whoever is taking the trainer course to learn the entire curriculum, not just the firearms they'd need to use here," she says. She adds that all the ammunition has been used up in the FBI course and other standard training exercises which officers must complete each year to maintain their firearms licenses.
The FBI was unable to provide information on the training course, but according to spokesperson Debbie Weierman, "the FBI itself does not carry hollow point bullets." Rodin says that there are no such deadly bullets in CUNY's possession now, and university security director Jose Elique did not answer requests for comment. Before coming to CUNY in 1991, he worked as a counterterrorism expert at the Port Authority.
Whatever their purpose, students and professors say, hollow point purchases make a chilling symbolic statement at the very least. And they say that even if guards don't typically carry guns, training with them builds a siege mentality that pervades their work. "Security should be providing a service function," says Cecilia McCall, vice chair of the faculty senate, "but they're evolving into something else. I hear a lot of complaints from students and from visitors about how aggressively and rudely they are treated by security."
The centralized, 632-officer security force was established in a controversial move in 1992 by then chancellor Ann Reynolds, and features an elite unit of about 33 officers called the SAFE (Special Assistance for Events) Team. Since then, SAFE has been most frequently deployed at student demonstrations, arresting hunger strikers at City College in 1995 and protesters at CUNY board of trustees meetings repeatedly.
This year a recent graduate, the writer Suzy Subways, was strip-searched by police after CUNY security plucked her from a group heckling a Hunter College remediation hearing. She was handcuffed and taken to the nearby precinct. Eventually charges against her were dropped, and she is now suing both CUNY and the NYPD.
Such violations are almost inevitable in a militarized climate, CUNY activists say. CUNY officials say that campus crime has dropped 69 percent since the CUNY security force was created. But, say student activists, the message their school is sending by stocking up on riot gear is clear: it is not about defending students from outside intruders. As Keith Higginbotham noted in his Hunter Envoy story that broke the news of the weapons buys, while academic programs have gone begging, CUNY has spent upwards of $100 million on beefing up security.
Worst of all, says Ed Sullivan, that perception has a chilling effect on dissent. "Campuses in particular must foster an atmosphere of open discussion and students' sense that they may peaceably assemble to air their grievances," he says. "The college should encourage them. This police presence certainly does the opposite."