Hundreds of PSU students, teachers, staff and other members of the community packed themselves into a campus performance hall this morning to witness the first PSU Board of Trustees meeting since the fatal June shooting of Jason Washington by a pair of campus police officers. Washington was breaking up a drunken fight in front of the Cheerful Tortoise bar on PSU campus in the early hours of June 29 when a gun fell out of his hip holster. When he reached to pick up the weapon, two officers monitoring the fight fired at him. Washington died after being hit by nine bullets, according to the Multnomah County Medical Examiner.
Washington's death was the first shooting on campus by PSU police after the board voted to arm the 12-officer force with firearms in 2015.
That 2015 vote was contested by hundreds of PSU faculty and students at the time, but PSU board members argued that not being able to carry a gun kept officers from adequately defending the urban campus. At today's meeting, many of those same dissenters returned with a simple message: We warned you.
"It’s so, so horrible this has happened and it's so, so horrible that this is not a surprise," said PSU student Gabriel Loyd, who spoke during the public testimony portion of the meeting. "I really want to emphasize that you all had the power to make this decision, you have the power to fix it now."
A Multnomah County grand jury cleared the two officers involved in the shooting, James Dewey and Shawn McKenzie, of any criminal charges in Septemeber. Following that ruling, PSU President Rahmat Shoureshi announced he'd hired two outside firms to investigate Washinton's death and to conduct a more widespread investigation into PSU's public safety tactics—notatbly, the need to arm officers. The volunteer-led board, who are appointed by the governor and approved by the state senate, would have the ultimate say on whether to act on these findings.
"The trustees are keeping an open mind about how we will go forward regarding campus security," said Acting Chairwoman Gale Castillo at the beginning of board meeting. Usually, the board meets in a standard boardroom in the PSU rec center. But, because of the expected audience turnout, the meeting was moved to the 475-seat Lincoln Hall auditorium. Nearly all the seats were filled.
"We're here today because of a singularly tragic event," said Lisa Bates, a PSU professor. "But this decision affects our every day on this campus and in this community."
Bates noted that more and more faculty members of color leave PSU every year after not feeling welcome or supported on campus. She said adding armed police to the equation, officials known to disproportionately target the Black community, doesn't help.
"I teach my students that we have time to change and transform ourselves," said Bates. "But we have not acted in time for Jason Washington and his family."
Washington's wife and young daughters attended the meeting, sitting just a few rows from where board members sat on the stage. They declined to address the board but applauded after speakers called for disarming the police.
"Every day I walk by the sign that says 'Let Knowledge Serve the City,'" said DeEtte Waleed, a PSU professor that specializes in conflict resolution. "We now have knowledge that the arming of our police officers caused the death of a man who was not doing anything wrong. As a matter of fact, he was doing what the campus police officers should have been doing: He was breaking a fight without using a gun."
A number of students have camped out of the steps of PSU's Campus Public Safety Office since Septemeber 24, the first day of PSU's fall term, to demand the board immediately disarm its officers. They've also called for PSU to immediately fire officers Dewey and McKenzie and install a permanent memorial to Washington on campus. PSU ordered Washington's family to remove a temporary memorial created on campus a month before the fall semester began. One speaker suggested the memorial was removed to "hide it from incoming students."
In an email response to questions posed by the public at today's meeting, PSU said that a permanent memorial is "under consideration." PSU spokesperson Kenny Ma said that the campus won't consider firing either officer until after the outside investigations are completed. One of the officers, however, has quit.
"The safety of our campus is a daunting and complex responsibility," Ma writes. "We do not want to rush to judgment. That's why we are conducting a comprehensive independent review that will look at training, staffing, policies and procedures and alternatives going forward such as disarming."
Olivia Pace, a member PSU's student union who helped organize the public safety office camp-out, told board members she'd tired of waiting, and she's exhausted of having to still fight against militarizing campus police.
"I'm not here today to try to appeal to you on the basis of morality one more time, you already know my stance, you know the general stance of the students, staff, and faculty on the campus very well," said Pace, who was involved in opposing the initial movement to disarm PSU police five years ago. "I only have one question to pose to you today: What is this worth?"