police Arms Liv Hines

As part of our initiative called Curious Cornhuskers, an anonymous reader asked The Daily Nebraskan, “Why are University of Nebraska-Lincoln Police Department officers armed?”

John Backer, police operations captain for UNLPD, said officers are armed to protect the campus community, enforce UNL policies, city ordinances and state laws and to uphold the Constitution.

“In very unfortunate times, [the situation] may involve needing to protect that campus community from those who are intent on doing harm,” he said. “It’s a situation we hope never comes up, but we are armed to deal with that potential if it should arise.”

UNLPD officers are required to carry a taser and semi-automatic handgun when they are on duty, unless they go somewhere where weapons are prohibited, such as a corrections facility, according to Backer. However, he said officers are trained to use non-lethal ways to handle a situation first. 

“We train on a large variety of skills and tactics, some of which aren’t always physical,” he said. “We also work on de-escalation and working through a situation in attempts to not have it come to using force.”

Officers are required to have annual training in defensive-tactics, tasers and firearms, but Backer said UNLPD officers exceed the firearm training requirements of the state and have training several times a year.

“The learning and the training of the officer definitely doesn’t end at that academy graduation,” Backer said. “It certainly carries through throughout their career.”

UNLPD interim Police Chief Hassan Ramzah said in a statement to the UNL community on Monday, June 15, that UNLPD is committed to providing a safe environment on campus for everyone and ensuring there is no discrimination. Ramzah said the Police Advisory Board will expand to allow more diverse voices, including voices from the black community. 

“Through the board, we will dive deeper into our policies and training, finding ways we can continue to move forward and do better for the entire university community,” he said in the statement. “As these examinations lead to specific actions, we will be transparent and share them with you.”

The department also has a Citizen’s Police Academy, which occurs over the course of a semester in the fall or spring, for students, faculty and staff to learn more about UNLPD, but Backer said UNLPD is unsure if the academy will occur in the fall because of the coronavirus pandemic. The department can also set up a ride-along with officers, according to Backer, and anyone who has questions is welcome to reach out to UNLPD. 

UNLPD also manages UNL’s Threat Assessment Partnership, which is a program where officers assess situations involving UNL faculty, staff or students that could significantly disrupt the campus community and respond accordingly to protect the campus. Backer said anyone who knows if someone is planning a violent crime should report it to UNLPD. 

“That’s where we stress our priorities; it’s on that prevention and the intervention rather than using firearms,” Backer said. “The firearms, of course, are a necessity to protect life in that last moment, but we like to see our work as starting much before that on the prevention and intervention, but we need the university community’s and the public’s cooperation to do that.” 

Backer said officers only use their firearm if they need to protect their life or the life of those around them, but officers never go into an encounter wanting it to end with force.

“That’s our last hope,” he said. “They ultimately try to make every situation come out so it doesn’t involve that.”