By Brian Messenger and Alex Lippa
---- — NORTH ANDOVER — “Close to home,” is how Merrimack College police Chief Michael DelGreco described the death of Massachusetts Institute of Technology police Officer Sean Collier, who authorities say was fatally shot last week by the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings.
Thousands of law enforcement officers and Vice President Joe Biden are expected to attend a memorial service for Collier today at MIT in Cambridge. The event is not open to the public. A funeral was held for him yesterday.
DelGreco said several Merrimack College officers knew Collier personally. One officer grew up with the Wilmington native, while others got to know the 26-year-old Somerville resident during regional training sessions they attended together.
“It was tough on them,” said DelGreco. “The question everybody asks is ‘why?’ But they still have a job to do.”
As local colleges and universities grow in size and serve as a second home for more and more students, so too grow the responsibilities of their police departments. Gone are the days when security guards patrolled area campuses.
And while the unthinkable occurred last week at MIT, local colleges say they have procedures in place if a similar situation were to happen.
At Rivier University in Nashua, a school with more than 2,000 students, 10 unarmed security officers patrol the campus.
“All officers are required to have basic skills,” said Richard McDonald, director of public safety and security at Rivier. “We are certified in CPR, first aid and using the few (automatic external defibrillators) which are on campus.”
McDonald said four of his officers are retired members from the Nashua Police Department and all are required to attend a week-long campus safety training program, which is held at a different campus each year.
“They learn how to do drug recognition, fire safety, how to handle sexual assaults and people with aggressive behavior,” he said. “It’s a scaled down version of a police academy.”
Officers are also unarmed at Southern New Hampshire University. Jim Winn, the university’s director of public safety, said he tries to hire officers who have prior law enforcement experience.
“There’s no law which mandates the training and experience our officers have,” Winn said. “But about three-quarters of our officers have experience whether it be in police, military or other public institutions.”
Things are much different at the University of New Hampshire, where officers are trained to use firearms. All UNH police officers are certified through the New Hampshire Police Standards & Training Academy in Concord.
“There is no difference between training requirements for a Manchester or Nashua officer and a UNH officer,” said UNH director of media relations Erika Mantz.
At Merrimack College in North Andover, DelGreco said his 14 full-time and 14 part-time officers carry handguns, batons and OC or pepper spray. Many of them also work part-time with area municipal police departments, he said.
DelGreco started working at Merrimack 15 years ago, when most officers were part-time and came from a security background rather than a background in law enforcement. But over time, the campus police force has evolved into a “full-service police department,” he said.
“No one knows our campus better than our officers,” said DelGreco. “It only makes sense that we have the training and the equipment. ... I just think given the times we live in, people want to make sure that their children are safe.”
At Northern Essex Community College, which has campuses in Lawrence and Haverhill, unarmed public safety officers are contracted through the private firm Eagle Security.
“They all take their jobs very seriously,” said David Gingerella, vice president of administration and finance at NECC. “They are all concerned about making sure our faculty, staff and students feel safe.”
Gingerella said the public safety budget at NECC has doubled in the last year to well over $1 million. He said campus safety has become a priority for Lane Glenn, who came aboard as college president two years ago
Gingerella said the new public safety money has been used to hire additional officers, pay for new uniforms, equipment and training, and to improve on-campus lighting, among other investments.
As for guns, Gingerella said public safety directors from community colleges across the state have been debating whether to arm their officers well before last week’s terrorist attack.
“There’s pros and cons each way,” said Gingerella. “It’s an active conversation that’s been going on for a while.”
Many area universities are also trained in crisis management. Rivier’s McDonald said his officers completed a review of their bomb threat policy just a week prior to the Boston Marathon bombings.
“We worked with Nashua police to determine just what exactly we do if we receive any type of threat,” he said.
Winn, of Southern New Hampshire, said he has noticed a heightened focus on campus security since the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007.
“Safety and security really got pushed to the forefront after that,” Winn said. “All institutions were mandated to have an emergency alert system following that.”
But if such a situation like the one at MIT occurred locally, McDonald said it may be an issue for unarmed officers.
“We aren’t equipped to handle anything like that,” McDonald said. “We would immediately contact Nashua police and we would work hand in hand with them. Fortunately, we haven’t had to handle anything like that before.”