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Organizations face tough issues in deciding whether to arm guards

Well-defined policies, careful training needed

Los Angeles Unified School District
Photo by AP PHOTO The Los Angeles Unified School District has its own police force, whose members receive formal police officer training.

The December shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., prompted considerable discussion of putting armed guards in schools and other public places, though various factors make the decision a complicated one.

“Every type of public place is different and, from the owner's perspective, it is in their interest to make people feel comfortable and safe,” said Tracy Knippenburg Gillis, global reputational risk and crisis management practice leader at Marsh Risk Consulting in New York. “It's not as simple as saying we're going to put armed guards in the mall, for example. Maybe some people would be made uncomfortable by the presence of armed guards in the mall.

“There's an increased exposure, I would say, in having armed guards. If there's an exchange (of gunfire), someone could be harmed,” Ms. Gillis said. “There is some increased risk, potentially.”

For those considering putting armed guards in schools or other public places, it's critical to make sure well-defined policies and proper procedures are in place, along with making sure those carrying the weapons are adequately trained, experts say.

“You want people who are (Police Officer Safety Training) certified,” said Gregg Breed, chief risk officer at the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has its own police force. “That way, you know that they are trained in what to do and how to handle situations.”

“It does require a good deal of discretion and judgment,” said Ronald D. Stephens, executive director at the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif. “Armed officers generally are going to be academy-trained from the police department.”

Douglas W. Gniewek, executive director of the office of risk management at Detroit Public Schools, said the school district employs unarmed contracted security guards at its schools, in addition to having its own police force of armed officers.

Members of the Detroit school district's police force are officers of the Detroit Police Department, Mr. Gniewek said, which ensures they have the proper training and background.


“It's a real question from a risk management perspective,” he said. “If you move to armed (guards), the cost goes up. Of course, you never want to make the decision on that basis.”

Ms. Gillis said issues to be considered in discussions of placing armed guards in schools apply to other public places as well. “It's even more true, perhaps, for those who manage or own public places, like a mall for example,” she said.

Security is one of many factors in addressing the threat of violent acts, Ms. Gillis said, adding that the issue plays into whether shoppers, moviegoers or other visitors feel more or less safe. That perception aspect, she said, can be “more challenging to get right.”

“Guns are not the only option, obviously,” Ms. Gillis said. “You need to think long and hard about whether that makes sense, particularly in a public place.

“You absolutely need to ensure that, if you're going down that road, that you understand the downsides as well as the potential upside,” she said.

For clients evaluating the possible use of force, “what we look for and what we end up seeing is whether there are consistent policies to begin with,” Ms. Gillis said. “Otherwise you have created additional exposure for yourself as a business.”

After evaluating the client's situation, her Marsh practice group has often determined that the risk of adding guns was too high or that less lethal weapons would be a more effective approach.

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