Steven Healy, the CEO of private campus security consultant Margolis Healy, opened Tuesday afternoon’s listening session at Portland State University (PSU) by offering his condolences to the community.
“Obviously, we are here because of Mr. Washington’s death at the hands of the Portland State University police officers,” Healy acknowledged.
Healy’s referring to Jason Washington, the 45-year-old man who was fatally shot by a campus police officer on June 29.
Washington was the first person to be killed by PSU’s campus police force, which began carrying guns in 2015 after a vote by the university’s Board of Trustees. The question of whether campus police officers should continue to be armed–and skepticism on what effect, if any, an outside consulting firm can have on the issue–dominated Tuesday’s listening session, the first of nine to be held this week.
The event, attended by about 25 students and faculty members, is part of Margolis Healy’s broader review of PSU campus security policies and procedures. The university decided to hire Margolis Healy shortly after students occupied the steps outside PSU’s Campus Public Safety Office (CPSO) at the beginning of fall quarter, demanding that PSU fire the two men who shot Washington and disarm its police force.
“We’ve been having those discussions ever since campus security was armed, so this doesn’t feel very different than anything we’ve done in the last five years,” Kaden Burdick, a fourth-year PSU student and active member of the PSU Student Union, told Healy near the beginning of the listening session. “We didn’t ask you to come here, we don’t know who you are … I don’t trust the fact that the idea of disarmament will be considered at all.”
Healy said that his firm’s work would only be “one piece of the current conversation of, what is the appropriate police model for Portland State University today.”
Other students expressed their own doubts that Margolis Healy’s review would change anything at PSU–and that they questioned Healy’s own ability to conduct an effective review, given his past work as a campus police chief and military police officer.
“How do you feel like your experience as a police chief informs your ability to [conduct these sessions]?” asked PSU student Ariana Dato.
Healy answered that he has made it his “life’s work” to curb bias in policing and make campuses safer.
“I respect that you think it’s a conflict,” he added, “but I don’t think it’s a conflict.”
One faculty member asked Healy if, in any of his past reviews, he has recommended that campuses disarm their police forces. He estimated that when the issue came up, his final recommendations fell along “about a 60-40 split” between arming and disarming.
Healy and his colleague, Christi Hurt, asked attendees to share their own experiences with campus police and safety, and their suggestions for possible improvements.
Several faculty members and students said they had been hesitant to call campus police during potentially unsafe situations, because they feared bringing an armed officer onto the scene would only escalate matters. Two faculty members recalled that before PSU had an armed police force, trained counselors from PSU’s counseling clinic would be called on to help de-escalate problems that arose in the classroom.
One faculty member said that her colleagues who were people of color didn’t feel they could count on campus police to protect them. A Black faculty member said she had tried reporting an incident to police once, but that they had ignored her report.
Time for the 90-minute session ended before Healy and Hurt could ask all the questions on their list. They encouraged faculty and students to further share their experiences in an online survey that will be sent to their PSU emails.
Burdick didn’t think there had been enough outreach for this week’s listening sessions. He pointed out that PSU has a student body of about 26,000 students, and only about 25 people were attending the first session.
“One positive thing about this is there’s a lot of times, and that should be helpful,” he said. “But we get so many emails every day, and especially so many from the administration and from the president. I think students need to see this out on campus, on a sign or wherever.”
Burdick said in his three years of campus organizing, he’s seen listening sessions like this take place before–“people who are nodding their heads, and taking notes, and nothing happens.” He’s been part of the efforts to disarm PSU since his freshman year, and he’ll graduate soon.
“I’m hoping this [disarmament] will happen before I graduate,” he said. “But I kind of doubt it.”