There was one point of agreement between otherwise contentious groups at Portland State University’s (PSU) special board of trustees meeting on Thursday morning: the university failed to act carefully or responsibly in the aftermath of a 2014 decision to arm police on campus.
The question of what the future holds for PSU’s police force, and general campus security, however, remains much less settled.
“The university failed to acknowledge the pretty significant rift and divide that was created by the decision to transition to having armed officers,” said Steven Healy, CEO of private campus security firm Margolis Healy, at the meeting. “It appeared to us that the university hoped that those wounds would simply heal by themselves, or it would magically disappear. That’s not the way the world works.”
The meeting was an opportunity for the board and PSU community members to digest and respond to a recent report from Margolis Healy. PSU commissioned the firm to examine overall campus safety, and the particular question of whether PSU should continue having an armed police department, after the death of Jason Washington last year. Washington, a 45-year-old Black Navy veteran, died after being shot by PSU police officers near campus in June.
Andre Washington, Jason’s brother, speaking now. He’s sharing his own experience with feeling racially targeted by PSU officers when he was a student here in 2010. Says he was randomly stopped and asked for ID on the same street where his brother was shot years later. pic.twitter.com/Hk07tSz0S9
— Blair Stenvick (@BlairStenvick) March 7, 2019
Margolis Healy’s report stopped short of calling on PSU to disarm its officers. Student activists in the PSU student union and the #DisarmPSU movement took issue with that conclusion—as well as with many other suggestions in the report, including physical safety measures like adding security cameras and restricting building access on campus.
Student union member Kaitlyn Dey outlined many of those concerns during the public comment portion of Thursday’s meeting. But she also identified one point in the report she agreed with.
“Margolis Healy did get one thing right,” Dey said. “Students need more oversight on campus public safety policy.”
After the board of trustees voted to arm PSU’s Campus Public Safety Office (CPSO) officers in 2014, according to Margolis Healy’s report, certain promises were made to campus community members. The number of armed police officers would be limited, and many unarmed officers would stay on the CPSO force. Armed officers would receive extensive sensitivity and bias training, and the University Public Safety Oversight Committee (UPSOC) would maintain close campus police oversight, especially in regard to police use of force. The university would regularly engage with students and faculty members, and take their feedback into account.
“The board of trustees made many implicit and explicit recommendations [in 2014],” Healy said. “Many of those recommendations were not fully implemented. Some were ignored.”
In its report, Margolis Healy suggests scaling back the number of armed officers on campus, and maintaining a team of “highly visible” unarmed officers to respond to the majority of campus calls for service. It’s an approach similar to one used by Yale’s and Vanderbilt University’s campus police, Healy said, and one routinely deployed by police officers in the United Kingdom.
The suggestion didn’t satisfy #DisarmPSU members, who hissed and vocally objected throughout Healy’s presentation.
Healy observed that the PSU community “expects a high degree of oversight,” and that there exists “a high degree of mistrust between some members of the campus community and the university.”
That mistrust dates at least as far back as the 2014 vote to arm campus police, judging by one student union member’s public comment. Student activists objected to the decision at the time, and have been trying to reverse the board’s decision to arm campus police ever since. The movement found new urgency after Washington’s death last year.
“If you had cared about the opinions of the community,” the student union member said, “you wouldn’t have armed in 2014.”
Margolis Healy’s report found that 52 percent of respondents to a campus-wide survey favored the decision to disarm campus police. Healy said that about 14 percent of PSU students and faculty participated in the survey.
It’s worth noting that a new bill in the Oregon Legislature could render Margolis Healy’s report obsolete. That bill, introduced by Rep. Diego Hernandez, would disarm campus police at both PSU and the University of Oregon if passed.
The PSU community is also waiting on an independent investigating concerning the exact details of Washington's death—though that report has been delayed indefinitely.
But in the meantime, PSU has some work to do. Board members said Thursday that they plan to form a committee of faculty, staff, and students to consider Margolis Healy’s suggestions and determine what would work for the campus—and what is financially feasible. Those findings should be presented at a June board meeting.
“This community expects the university to lead with innovation,” Healy said. “At the end of the day, the university and the board have to make a decision on the path forward.”