COUNCIL Report on the November 13 Agenda

The following is a report prepared in July, 1996, and sent to the Steering Committee of University Council, summarizing discussions of the 1995-96 Committee on Safety and Security (see the Committe's year-end report, Almanac September 24). The summary was reviewed at the first fall meeting of the 1996-97 Committee.

Summary of Discussions on the University Police Department Proposal to Switch from Revolvers to Semi-Automatic Pistols

At the request of the President of the University, the Safety and Security Committee looked at the proposal to replace University Police Officers' revolvers with semi-automatic pistols.

As Chair of the Committee, I personally contacted numerous sources, including senior faculty in Arts and Sciences, the Medical School, the Law School, the Division of Public Safety, and University Administration. I also sought input from sources at three outside universities, as well as the Philadelphia Office of the FBI, and the Superintendent of the Lower Merion Police Department.

All those who spoke out on the issue at the November Council Open Forum were invited to attend meetings of our Committee. In addition, the Committee on Pluralism and the Community Relations Committee were invited to take part in our discussions. Input was received from members of the Community Relations Department; African-American Association of Faculty, Staff, and Administrators; and Penn Faculty and Staff for Neighborhood Issues (PFSNI).

Two meetings were devoted almost exclusively to this topic. Invited guests included the FBI Principal Firearms Instructor, and an internationally known consultant on police issues.

Among those who did not support the change to semi-automatic pistols, the following issues were raised:

  1. It "would send the wrong message to the West Philadelphia community."

  2. Some in the community have a negative view of the University, and particularly the University Police. Changing to semi-automatic weapons would aggravate this perception.

  3. It would "raise the stakes"--we should consider disarming the police, so the criminals would be less likely to use guns.

  4. Changing to semiautomatics would increase the likelihood of a member of the University being shot.

  5. The issue must be looked at carefully before a decision is made, in the tradition of an academic institution.

  6. Before a change is made, there should be some assurances that the training of officers, and the policy on deadly force be reviewed and revised as necessary.

In the course of our discussion, it became clear that semi-automatic pistols were often confused with automatic weapons, including machine guns and machine pistols. The Committee learned that:

  1. The size, weight and rate of fire are the same for revolvers and semi-automatic pistols.

  2. Both revolvers and semi-automatic pistols discharge one bullet for each pull of the trigger, while fully automatic weapons continue to discharge bullets at a rapid rate as long as the trigger is held back.

  3. Semi-automatic pistols hold more bullets (up to 18) than a revolver (6-8), and are reloaded more quickly.

  4. The "power" of a handgun is a function of the bullet used, not the design of the firearm. A change to semi-automatic weapons does not mean a change to a more powerful weapon.

  5. Semi-automatic pistols have less recoil and are more accurate than revolvers.

  6. Because of their increased accuracy and bullet capacity, semi-automatic pistols have become standard issue for 90% of Police Departments in the United States, including Philadelphia, SEPTA, AMTRAK, Philadelphia Housing, the State Police, Postal Police, the FBI, and all surrounding townships. In other words, all police authorities with jurisdiction in West Philadelphia, except the University Police, are currently equipped with semi -automatic pistols.

Mr. Thomas Seamon, Managing Director of Public Safety, reported that:

  1. The criminal population has changed over to semi-automatic weapons in the past several years. University Police officers perceive they are at a disadvantage, and perhaps would be if a significant confrontation involving weapons were to occur.

  2. The failure to equip officers consistent with the national standard could create a liability for the University, should an officer be harmed in a confrontation.

  3. The current revolvers are nearing the end of their useful life and will soon need replacement.

  4. Semi-automatic pistols have become the standard in the industry. It will be more difficult in the future to train officers and maintain equipment if the University Police retain revolvers.

I did not ask the Committee to vote on this issue. I felt the role of the Committee was to identify the relevant issues and gather the facts needed to help the University come to a reasoned conclusion. There was no consensus, and little likelihood that one would be reached. For some, the issue was an emotional one. In many cases, it could not be separated from larger issues, such as the University's relationship to the West Philadelphia community, and race relations in general. Whatever decision is reached, some thoughtful, responsible, important members of the community may well be upset, angered, or offended. I hope the work of the Committee on Safety and Security will help the University make the appropriate decision in the best interest of the University community in its broadest sense.

-- Prepared by Sean Kennedy, 1995-96 Co-Chair and 1996-97 Chair, Committee on Safety and Security


Volume 43 Number 11
November 5, 1996

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