PORTLAND STATE UNIVERSITY is a small city within a city—but a team of just 17 security guards patrols the 30,000-student urban campus. Now, the school is considering a controversial plan to create its own police force of sworn officers who, unlike the guards, would carry guns and be able to investigate serious crimes, like sexual assaults.
The proposal took on tragic urgency this week, after a 27-year-old student walking to her dorm room early Monday, November 26, reported being hit over the head and sexually assaulted by a man she didn't know. The woman woke up in an alley behind her dorm at SW 10th and Market and called campus security, who then called Portland police.
PSU is unique among its 21 urban peer universities in not having a campus-run, independent police force. Unless a survivor of sexual assault reports the crime almost immediately afterward (as happened in this week's case), campus security will call Portland police officers, who—since it's not a crime-in-progress—can take several hours to show up, interview the survivor, and begin an investigation.
"To me, it's an embarrassment that in 2012 we're conducting sexual assault investigations in this manner," says Director of Public Safety Phil Zerzan. "This was the first thing that jumped out at me when I took this job, it was like a time machine stepping back into the '70s."
PSU faces distinct challenges as the state's largest university whose smack-in-the-middle-of-downtown campus has no real borders. According to the campus security office, 80 percent of people arrested on campus are not associated with the school.
Meanwhile, reported sexual assaults have increased on campus from two in 2009 to nine in 2011, three-quarters of which were perpetrated by people the victims knew. An increase in reports could actuall be a good sign, as PSU has made strides to ensure sexual assault survivors can swiftly make a report, be paired with an advocate, and receive medical care all on campus. But the police element remains external.
"I have people coming into my office every day saying they feel unsafe," says Dean of Student Life Michele Toppe, noting that students—portaging laptops and expensive books around an unfamiliar city—can make easy targets. "I've waited a really long time for police to show up when I needed them."
PSU's police proposal would lower the number of security staff, from 17 security guards to 10 security guards. But it would add 16 sworn police officers and three sergeants, while establishing standards for training and oversight. The university says it has yet to prepare a cost estimate.
At a public forum last week, students expressed mixed opinions on the plan, many worrying about oversight of the force and fearing that armed police officers could harshly respond to minor incidents and student protests. Adding a professional police force to the campus touches a nerve at a time when the city has been struggling with its own issues of police accountability.
"I don't like cops, but the [current security] are the nicest cops I've come across," said Thomas Buccido, a film production major.
Public Safety Director Zerzan pointed out that PSU already does have armed cops on campus: Portland police, whenever they're called. A PSU police force could be overseen directly by the university and have more specific training than Portland police. Zerzan pointed to the case of last year's infamous pepper spraying of University of California, Davis students by campus police, noting that the officer involved was fired.
"Ask yourself if you'd have the same response from the municipal authority we currently contract with to provide safety," said Zerzan.
Portland has been unable to fire officers involved in high-profile use-of-force abuses (most notably Officer Ron Frashour) and is in the midst of reform following a federal investigation that found that officers' systematic treatment of people with mental illness is unconstitutional.
Other students at last week's forum wondered how much having a police force would actually reduce sexual assaults on campus.
"The big problem is not lack of police officers, but rape culture. What we need to support is making women feel safe," said Sarah Levy, a member of PSU's International Socialist Organization.
Of course, funding prevention and counseling is crucial, says PSU Women's Resource Center Assistant Director Jessica Amo, who supports the campus police-force proposal, "but it's not an either-or. We need to be advancing on all fronts. After an incident has occurred, we need to have solid services."