Disarm PSU held protests in 2018, following the killing of Jason Washington by PSU armed police officers.
Disarm PSU held protests in 2018, following the killing of Jason Washington by PSU armed police officers. Andrew jankowski

Portland State University (PSU) will no longer have armed police officers on its campus, starting this fall. The decision is a direct result of recent protests against police brutality and racial injustice, spurred by the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd in May.

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In a press briefing held Wednesday, PSU President Stephen Percy called the choice to disarm campus police a reflection of the school’s “growing commitment to anti-racism.”

“Over the last few weeks and months, we’ve heard many discussions about protests… and a call for policing to be new and innovative,” Percy added.

Under the new plan, PSU’s campus safety officers will still be sworn police officers, meaning they will have the same authority of any other cop in Oregon, including arrest powers. They won’t carry guns, but they will use other “less-lethal” weapons, such as tasers. While PSU police officers will patrol the campus and respond to the majority of PSU calls, armed officers from the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) will respond to calls that involve people with weapons.

“The only time [PPB] will intercede is if there is a call that is more than we can handle being unarmed,” said Campus Public Safety Chief Willie Halliburton, adding that in his experience such calls are “rare” for PSU. Even in situations where PPB is called to campus, PSU’s force will handle all follow-up work on the cases.

The new policy departs significantly from a PSU campus safety plan released in October 2019. That plan called for some changes to the school’s safety policies—such as increased oversight and training for officers—but maintained that police officers would remain armed.

Many PSU students, faculty, and staff members had been calling for campus officers to be disarmed since 2015, when the school first established its own police force. (Prior to 2015, the school used an unarmed campus security team, rather than a police force.) Their movement took on a new fervor when PSU officers shot and killed Jason Washington, a Black man who was trying to break up a fight at a bar near campus, in 2018.

Students calling to disarm PSU police officers packed into PSU board meetings in 2019.
Students calling to disarm PSU police officers packed into PSU board meetings in 2019. blair Stenvick

When Floyd’s killing in May inspired global protests against police brutality, the Disarm PSU movement also held protests on campus, with the support of Washington's family. Disarm PSU called Wednesday’s announcement “a victory” in a statement shared with media.

“After seven years of organizing, protesting, collaborating, and coalition-building, the members of Disarm PSU are thrilled by today’s announcement,” the statement reads. “This particular political moment provided the last push the university administration needed to make this choice, but we would have never gotten to this point without the powerful, unwavering labor of the PSU Student Union, the Washington family, Black and brown student, faculty, and staff organizers, [and] support from community groups.”

At Wednesday’s press briefing, Percy said PSU’s administration had been planning to re-evaluate the campus safety plan in three years, but that he and Halliburton decided to review the policy early given the recent wave of protests. Percy said many PSU students, particularly Black, Indigenous, and people of color, “feel the presence of weapons on campus make us less safe.”

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“I reached out to a ton of folks on this campus here… I did a lot of reflecting, including of my own experiences,” said Halliburton, who is Black and was sworn in as the campus safety chief last month. “I think this decision is going to be the best for healing on this campus.”

More than 90 percent of public universities in the United States have an armed police force. For most of PSU’s history, its security personnel were unarmed—but the school has never operated specifically with an unarmed police force. Halliburton called the new policy “unchartered territory.”

“But it’s the right thing to do,” he added, “and the right time to do it at PSU.”

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