Metro

City councilors want hearing on Northeastern police weapons

A Northeastern University Police Department vehicle near the main campus.
DAVID L. RYAN/GLOBE STAFF/File
A Northeastern University Police Department vehicle near the main campus.

Two Boston city councilors have called for a public hearing on the decision by Northeastern University to arm 20 of its officers with “tactical rifles,” saying that the school should have consulted neighborhood residents before authorizing the increase in firepower.

In an open letter to university president Joseph E. Aoun, councilors Josh Zakim and Tito Jackson said residents of Mission Hill and Roxbury should have their say about the presence of a new force in their neighborhoods armed with high-powered weapons.

“This is a step backwards for community policing and encourages mistrust and fear,” the letter stated.

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Northeastern’s administrators made the decision to upgrade their arsenal late last year, and had followed in the footsteps of other area universities, including Tufts, MIT, and the University of Massachusetts Boston, as well as more than 60 other campuses across the country, said Ralph C. Martin II, the school’s general counsel. The new rifles would be deployed during high-level threats on campus, he said, which is why university officials did not seek input from the community.

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“You recognize that you are not going to make everyone happy,” Martin said in a telephone interview Monday. “If a severe incident of the type that none of us wants occurs, our police department is able to get there first. And while backup is on the way, we have to have the capability to make sure the incident does not spread.”

Martin did not disclose the circumstances in which tactical officers would be deployed, and declined to specify the weapons they would carry, citing security concerns.

Martin also declined to point to a specific case in which greater firepower would be particularly necessary, instead of the conventional handgun.

“There were 25 active shooter situations on college campuses” last year, Martin said, citing an FBI statistic.

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“This is an inward-facing capability to contain and apprehend the people engaged in the active shooter situation on our campus.”

When it was announced in December, Northeastern’s decision was met with protests from student groups, faculty, and the Boston Police Department.

Boston Police Commissioner William B. Evans called the plan unnecessary, and a department spokesman said that police, whose headquarters is on Tremont Street in Roxbury, could respond to an active shooter situation at Northeastern within minutes.

Evans also said at the time that police had not been notified of Northeastern’s plans in advance. On Monday, Northeastern officials responded by providing a timeline of events, which they said showed that the college had briefed city police officials on the change as early as Oct. 15.

Zakim said he had asked the university to consult with surrounding neighborhoods after the decision was announced, but to no avail.

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“We’re going to use this forum here to let folks participate and get some answers. It’s unfortunate they weren’t able to do so beforehand,” Zakim said in an interview.

Regardless, Martin and Michael Armini, a school spokesman, were steadfast in their support of the initiative and gave no indications that the University intended to bow to any public pressure.

As for the public meeting called by city councilors, Armini would not say if university administrators would attend.

Previously, Students Against Institutional Discrimination, a grass-roots coalition at the school, released a lengthy statement decrying the move as a gateway to police misconduct, discrimination, and a breakdown of trust between the community and administration.

“We have been exposed to the inefficiencies of police departments in the absence of transparency and accountability to the communities they serve and are funded by,” the group said.

In December, 60 Northeastern faculty members sent a letter addressed to the school’s president that also expressed concern about the decision.

Astead W. Herndon can be reached at astead.herndon@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @AsteadWH.