In the early hours of Friday, June 29, Jason Washington became the first person to be fatally shot by a Portland State University (PSU) campus police officer. Washington, a 45-year-old African American Navy veteran, was shot outside an off-campus bar after trying to break up a fight, according to bystanders. While attempting to intervene, Washington’s personal handgun fell out of his belt holster onto the sidewalk. That’s when a pair of PSU officers saw Washington reach down to retrieve his weapon. They shot him. Washington died on the scene.
Both of the PSU campus officers have been placed on paid leave. The Portland Police Bureau (PPB) is investigating the case.
Had this incident taken place five years ago, Washington might still be alive.
That’s because campus officers only began carrying firearms in July 2015, following a 9-3 vote of approval by PSU’s Board of Trustees. The decision came despite a wave of opposition from PSU students, faculty members, staff, and community members—all of whom have continued to call for PSU to disarm its 14 sworn police officers. To many at PSU, it was only a matter of time before someone died at the hands of campus police.
“This is exactly why we didn’t want armed police in the first place,” says PSU senior Olivia Pace, a member of the university’s student union. Now, with the added voices of elected officials and Washington’s family, the PSU community is again questioning the university’s decision to give firearms to campus police, who work for the school’s public safety office.
When PSU officials first considered arming officers in 2012, it was framed as a response to sexual assault on campus and claims that PPB wasn’t responding quickly enough to those crimes. But PSU’s crime data shows a distinct increase in rape, fondling (their term for sexual abuse), and stalking cases on campus since 2015, when the school armed its police.
A study released prior to the 2015 decision found that of the 1,200 students who participated in a campus survey, 58 percent were opposed to the creation of an armed police force. Four hundred of PSU’s professors were polled in another survey, and 64 percent were opposed to an armed security force.
The idea that armed cops would increase campus safety backfired particularly with students of color, who already felt disproportionately targeted by the city’s armed police. And now, the fact that Washington was Black further validates the community’s fears.
“The university was wrong the whole time,” Pace says. “This was never about our safety.”
Portland’s leaders are listening. On Sunday, former NAACP chapter president Jo Ann Hardesty and Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith joined students and Portlanders in Pioneer Courthouse Square to protest Washington’s shooting. The two women will compete for outgoing City Commissioner Dan Saltzman’s seat in November; regardless of the election’s outcome, the race will place the first Black woman on Portland City Council.
“The fact of the matter is that another Black man is dead,” Smith told the Mercury. “I’m calling on PSU to question whether it’s safe and prudent for officers to carry weapons on campus.”
City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly also chimed in, writing on her Facebook page that she supported the movement to disarm PSU officers “because campus police shot an innocent man in the back six times.” (PPB has not confirmed the number of shots fired.)
Meanwhile, PSU is preparing for a legal battle. Less than 24 hours after Washington’s death, PSU President Rahmat Shoureshi met with the board of trustees behind closed doors to hash out a plan.
“Campus safety is our top priority at PSU,” wrote Shoureshi in a media statement released Friday afternoon. “As you know, we are an urban campus, and that presents challenges.” In a separate statement, PSU spokesperson Kenny Ma reminded the public that prior to 2015, PSU was the only public university of its size in the US that didn’t have armed officers.
In the most recent federal survey of campus police by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, taken in 2012, researchers reported that 91 percent of all public colleges or universities had an armed police force. But in the past decade, the public has witnessed campus police accountability issues that echo problems in larger jurisdictions: Campus cops who shoot seemingly innocent people aren’t being indicted. Take, for instance, the 2013 death of 23-year-old Cameron Redus, a college student in San Antonio, Texas, who was shot in the back by a campus police officer after being pulled over for a DUI. Or the 2014 death of 38-year-old Antonio Guzman Lopez, who was waving a saw on the San Jose State University campus when he was shot in the back by campus police. No officers were charged in either of the killings.
Since Washington’s death marks the first campus officer shooting on PSU campus, it’s unknown how PPB or PSU will investigate the officers involved. Some at PSU say this unique factor—paired with a recent change in leadership—gives the university an opportunity to set a new example.
The decision to arm PSU officers took place under the leadership of former president Wim Wiewel. Shoureshi only entered the president’s office last summer, after Wiewel left to become president of Lewis & Clark College.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for [Shoureshi] to say, ‘This is an artifact of the previous administration, and I don’t agree with it,’” says Sarah Iannarone, a PSU alumni and employee, and a former mayoral candidate. “But I don’t know if we can trust that this will truly be a flash point for the university.”
Iannarone says the university has the ability to challenge the status quo with new data and research, and points to PSU’s motto: “Let knowledge serve the city.”
“Why isn’t the university a thought leader? We should be coming up with new studies to inform the police department, not just doing what the city’s always done,” Iannarone says.
At Sunday’s protest in downtown Portland, at least 40 of Washington’s close family and friends showed up in silent support. Most wore matching black shirts with Washington’s smiling face on them. Andre Washington, Jason’s older brother, spoke on behalf of the family.
“I graduated from Portland State University and I am disgusted,” he told the crowd. “That’s all I have to say.”