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PSU to disarm campus police officers this fall

Juli Castro, then senior at PSU, chants "say their names" at a special Board of Trustees meeting regarding armament of Portland State campus police March 7, 2018.
Ericka Cruz Guevarra
Juli Castro, then senior at PSU, chants "say their names" at a special Board of Trustees meeting regarding armament of Portland State campus police March 7, 2018.

Portland State University Thursday announced that starting this fall its campus police officers would begin conducting patrols without firearms.

The university said these unarmed campus patrols are the first step in an ongoing process to re-imagine campus safety.

PSU campus police officers two years ago shot and killed Jason Washington, a Black man, spurring criticism of armed safety officers from students and community members.

That criticism and pressure to disarm campus officers has only increased as demonstrations against police brutality started across the nation.

“Over the past few weeks we have listened to many voices across our campus,” PSU President Stephen Percy said in a statement. “The calls for change that we are hearing at PSU are ringing out across our nation. We must find a new way to protect the safety of our community, one that eliminates systemic racism and promotes the dignity of all who come to our urban campus.”

Campus Public Safety Chief Willie Halliburton made the decision for campus security officers to begin unarmed patrols, the university said.

“This is a historic event in the world of police work,” Halliburton said in a statement. “I understand it’s going to have its challenges, but it’s the right thing to do for Portland State. We will still protect our campus. We will still provide police services. We will have police officers available. We will have them here, but they will be unarmed.”

Instead of firearms, campus officers will carry “non-lethal tasers,” Halliburton said.

“If there is a call that requires an armed presence, Portland Police Bureau has agreed to assist us,” he said.

The university employees six sworn officers who will no longer be armed, in addition to seven non-sworn officers who do not carry firearms.

Halliburton said the university’s officers will be reaching out to other departments and organizations for ideas on how to handle people who may come onto campus while experiencing a mental health crisis.

“This is unique for Portland State University. I am not asking for other departments to follow our lead,” Halliburton said in his statement. “All I know is that at Portland State University, we need to heal, and this is the first step of healing.”

PSU President Percy said the university has a Reimagine Campus Safety Steering Committee made up of students, faculty and staff. Percy said he expects the committee to provide recommendations on campus safety without armed officers by the end of fall term.

DisarmPSU, a group of students, alumni, staff and others associated with the university, have been urging PSU to disarm its safety officers for the past seven years. The group said it was “thrilled” by PSU’s Thursday announcement.

“We welcome the formation of the Reimagine Campus Safety Committee and are eager to be involved,” the group said in a statement. “We call on President Percy, and the steering members of this newly formed committee to engage in a transparent, democratic, and accessible process, led by Black and Indigenous students, faculty, and staff, and including unhoused visitors to campus.”

Last October, the university announced it planned to retain armed campus officers.

In a press conference Thursday, Percy said the current protests and demonstrations in Portland and across the country have “raised our awareness of the concern about weapons and calls for re-imagining safety in general and law enforcement in general.”

“One of the things we have learned more over time, an important lesson for us, is that many of our students from some communities, particularly communities of color and traditionally marginalized communities feel the presence of weapons on campus makes them feel less safe,” Percy said. “We’ve heard that lesson and that has resonated with us and that’s one reason we’re thinking right now that this is a good time for us to begin rethinking our whole public safety approach.”

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Meerah Powell