NIU security measures go undercover

Published: 2/13/2009 12:02 AM

If it's being done right, you'd never notice the only addition to campus security procedures at Northern Illinois University after last year's deadly shooting spree.

It's called the Community Assault Mitigation Program for University Systems, or CAMPUS for short, and puts officers masquerading as students in spots all over campus.

"It's analogous to the sky marshal program," said NIU's Police Chief Donald Grady. "Anyone attempting to do violence has no idea whether they're standing next to a school officer or not."

A number of campus safety policies and procedures were enhanced after a gunman opened fire in a lecture hall, killing five people before turning one of his guns on himself a year ago Saturday, but the undercover program is the only new initiative. Northern's police department was well prepared for the kind incident that took place. Even before the tragedy at NIU, every officer was a certified EMT, Grady noted. Officers had been trained for responding to shooters and all squad cars carried ballistic shields to protect officers from gunfire.

"Columbine happened a number of years ago," Grady said. "To not be prepared for a school shooting would have been irresponsible on our part."

With the new program, undercover officers regularly attend classes, sit in the stands at sporting events and attend other school functions that draw crowds, Grady said. But that's about all the details he'll provide, not wanting to tip his hand.

"They are undercover, fully armed and highly trained so they can respond to any type of active shooter event," he said.

It's a one-of-a-kind program, but Grady said it's easily adaptable. It's also something that goes beyond the recommendations of the Illinois Campus Security Task Force report that NIU officials helped sculpt.

"I worked with that task force," Grady said. "Are there some things I think we could have done better? Yes."

The report focuses on three main areas: Developing a response plan, recovery and prevention. The problem some critics have had since the report's release is the lack of funding it provides for implementation.

"It's very, very thorough, a lot more than I would have estimated," said Sycamore Republican state Rep. Robert Pritchard. "But there's still these unfunded mandates and we've still got some amendments to make to it."

Pritchard is pushing legislation currently that would require immediate notification of adjacent school districts and other government agencies.

"In the case of NIU, the school district was just dismissing a school two blocks away when the shooting happened and they were never told what was going on," he said.

The report's initial release was delayed by the NIU shootings and university officials became far more involved with it in the aftermath. Northern President John Peters said the university's main contribution to the report was the recovery aspect. Following the Virginia Tech campus shootings in 2007, NIU officials dissected the state report that came out of that incident to determine what needed to be implemented at NIU.

"There is a section of the Virginia Tech report that talks about knowing how to certify counselors in the wake of a tragedy on campus," Peters said. "We had all the protocols and paperwork in place for that when the shooting here happened. We're kind of a case study in that. Otherwise, how do you certify 500 people in three days?"