The new governing body of Portland State, the Board of Trustees, will vote on the addition of a sworn campus police force on Dec. 11.
In preparation of the vote to arm PSU’s Campus Public Safety officers, a special committee composed of board members is moving forward with research and discussion to address recommendations given by the President’s Task Force on Campus Safety, which recognized several necessary improvements to the structure of campus policing.
“This is a conversation that has been happening at PSU for at least four or five years,” said Associated Students of PSU President Eric Noll. “Our transition to a new student body government just took place on June 1, but during the election this was a very important topic because it’s a major unknown. It’s going to have a major impact in many areas, but what exactly that will look like, we don’t know.”
Recommendations for campus safety
The Task Force report, published in November of last year, recommended that “PSU should explore ways to ensure access to sworn officers who are appropriately trained in campus policing and available on-site to the PSU campus community.”
The report also outlined four possible routes to implementing this recommendation, which include the options of transitioning CPSO to a department that has both fully sworn and non-sworn officers, contracting with an outside agency like the Portland Police Bureau, or a collaboration with nearby Oregon Health and Sciences University.
The Task Force stated that training specific to the university setting and culture is crucial, and that further exploration by another committee should be required before implementation.
Other recommendations presented in the report have been instituted, such as presentations and other outreach by Campus Public Safety leadership, and improved access control of buildings. Recent changes include the implementation of formal hours of operation and restricted keycard entry with the use of university IDs.
An earlier committee focused on campus safety, formed in 2008 by PSU’s former vice president for Finance and Administration Monica Rimai, also recommended making changes to Campus Public Safety to address the limitations of its authority by finding ways to upgrade campus security.
Responses made to the 2008 committee’s recommendations included the creation of new campus agencies Suggestions by that committee also recognized a possible solution in alterations to the status of campus law enforcement to “peace officers” or by upgrading to an official police force.
PSU is the only major university in Oregon without its own sworn officers on campus, and its closest neighbor, OHSU, announced in June that their sworn police force has been approved to carry firearms.
OHSU’s campus safety transitioned to a force that included sworn officers before making the separate decision that those officers carry firearms. While fully sworn officers have the authority to be armed, it is not a requirement, as demonstrated by the gradual development of OHSU’s law enforcement and safety professionals.
Considerations by the 2013 Task Force include the capabilities of campus safety to respond to and disrupt an active shooter. Within the current structure of campus safety, PSU would have to rely on the Portland Police Bureau in such a situation. Arguments in favor of sworn officers note what could be a crucial difference in response time if officers were already on campus.
“One obvious concern that’s certainly been in the news over the last 10 years or more is active shooter events,” said Scott Gallagher, director of communications at PSU. “Last academic year there was an active shooter at Seattle University, one in California, and one at the local Troutdale-Reynolds High School that happened in May. How do you regard something that happens? You have to plan for those sorts of things. What are the best practices regarding how to deal with that?
“Active shooters—you hope it never happens—but especially in this day and age you have to think about that,” Gallagher said.
Armed officers would also aid in the response to sexual assaults, Gallagher said. Currently, PSU is reliant on the PPB to do in-depth investigations, to take reports and to work with the District Attorney’s office.
“Having a police force would provide us an opportunity to do a lot of that ourselves. To respond more quickly, more thoroughly, and be more connected with the other campus resources that would come into play in such a situation, like the Women’s Resource Center, academics, student health, the dean of students, that sort of thing,” Gallagher added.
Chief Phillip Zerzan said that if CPSO were to undergo the transition to fully sworn officers, they would pursue International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators accreditation.
Additionally, sworn officers would go through a hiring process specific to the university.
“The current recruitment and selection process includes testing, psychological evaluation and an extensive background [check]. A final selection interview is conducted with representatives from student life, the Women’s Resource Center and other members of the PSU community,” Zerzan said. “The selection for police [officers] will be similar, but will include additional testing required by statute. We actively recruit from the PSU community, and in particular the PSU criminal justice program.”
Accounting for costs
An upgrade to campus safety also requires an addition of an estimated $1.5 million to the annual budget, an increase that could be reflected for students in the cost of attendance. Noll said that students’ costs could rise if reductions aren’t made elsewhere.
The cost represents an increase in the number of safety services available, as well as the number of officers retained by the department.
“This would take us from 0.6 officers per 1,000 students up to 1.8 officers per 1,000 students,” Noll said.
The 2013 Task Force on Campus Safety expressed that understaffing is an issue in PSU’s campus safety. In addition to limitations on the authority and jurisdiction of non-sworn officers, it was highlighted as a need the campus must address.
Still, an increase in the number of staff would not be a solution in itself, Zerzan said.
“[While] both are important issues, an increase in staffing will not remedy significant limitations on our ability to provide comprehensive services to the campus,” Zerzan said.
Zerzan cited a report by consulting firm Sigma Threat Associates that was elicited by the C.A.R.E. Team earlier in the summer. That report found that relying on the Portland Police Bureau creates a “high potential for a delayed response, miscommunication or unilateral decision-making.”
Having direct and more immediate access to sworn officers would allow CPSO to take measures currently closed to them, such as conducting off-campus welfare checks on students in crisis and follow-up investigations, Zerzan said.
Officers would also have expanded jurisdiction to leased spaces, parks, city sidewalks and other places where campus safety does not have authority.
The Task Force report included a recommendation that CPSO maintain a number of non-sworn officers to provide some services at a lower cost.
The ASPSU position
“ASPSU does not have formal or legal decision-making power on this issue; that belongs to the Board of Trustees,” Noll said. “What we have is a structural and relationship-based say in how this develops. The board, Chief Zerzan of CPSO and others working on this have worked to engage us with intentional outreach.”
That outreach to ASPSU, other stakeholders and the wider campus community have taken the form of email communications, open forums, presentations and surveys. Communications from the office of President Wim Wiewel notes both one-time events and others that are ongoing, including Coffee with the Chief, scheduled every other Thursday in Parkway North on the first floor of the Smith Memorial Student Union. The first of the term is on Thursday.
ASPSU is planning to conduct more outreach to the student body as well.
The student government holds its first executive meeting of the term on Wednesday and its first senate meeting on Oct. 6. In these meetings, student representatives will discuss what forms that outreach should take and how to go about it.
Noll has some ideas of what that could look like.
“It’s ASPSU’s intention to create very specific smaller forums. It’s part of our plan to have two sets of forums: one set of forums that focuses on the specific issues related to this topic—guns, sexual assault prevention, money, the disproportionate effects law enforcement has had on communities of color and low income communities in Portland, on campus, and in the United States,” Noll said. “The other set of forums will be almost focus group-like and inclusive of specific identities—students of color, LGBTQ students, student parents, parents of students, students with disabilities and student veterans, for instance.”
The purpose of such efforts is to help ASPSU in the task of information gathering.
“We want to get a real understanding of the impact this decision could have on our campus community before we make a recommendation,” Noll expressed.
At this point, the official position of ASPSU is neutral on the topic of transitioning to a sworn police force, but Noll wants students to know that this stance is not demonstrative of a lack of engagement.
“ASPSU is a very intentional process, and we don’t want our neutrality to be mistaken for apathy on the issue—or support, either,” he said.
After a stage of information gathering, ASPSU plans to make a recommendation to the Board of Trustees using the proper avenues that they hope will help ensure the inclusion of the student needs they have assessed through their research.
“We want to recognize the potential that the board might very well move forward with this in December, and consider how we adapt ourselves to being able to respond to that, and how we also avoid a worst-case scenario of the board implementing changes without us being involved,” Noll said.
Noll said ASPSU wants to keep students involved in the conversation and make sure that conversation remains ongoing. He suggested that ASPSU could advocate for an advisory board that contains a strong student composition and ask decision-makers to consider measures like body cameras.
“We’re basically looking for tools that can make this change less abrasive to the student body,” Noll said.
Dissenting student voices
Some students have expressed concern since the Board of Trustee’s announcement. The PSU Student Union is currently collecting signatures to oppose the hiring of sworn officers on campus.
“The petition is opposing the deputization because we feel that [a] police force and policemen who are armed pose a threat to students,” said Sonya Friedman, a member of PSUSU. “We’ve seen campuses that are already deputized, and incidences happen where police shoot students dead with little to no repercussions.
“It’s a scary situation, especially on [the] PSU campus, which is an urban campus. There’s a lot of international students and students of color, this is an inherently unsafe situation that administration is trying to make happen.”
The petition, which is collecting signatures physically and online, currently has 136 signatures.
“Since we’ve been tabling most of last week, most people are very shocked when we talk about the reasoning behind this being to prevent sexual assault. Even the sentence itself is curious because you’re talking about using force to prevent something that happens in a very short amount of time,” Friedman said. “That’s not how sexual assault happens most of the time. It’s between people who know each other, probably intimately.
“Most people we’ve talked to realize right away this is a very strange reason to create a police force.”
In addition to petitioning, PSUSU will be creating a zine where people can share stories about their encounters with the Portland Police and Campus Public Safety officers.
Friedman stressed the importance of students attending the Oct. 7 safety forum and voicing their opinions.
“We want to get as many people involved in this process as possible. People should have [a] say in where their tuition dollars are going and the environment they’re living in. If we have a sworn police force and weapons on campus, I think that’s going to severely impact the environment we’re living in.”
At a senate meeting on Oct. 6, the ASPSU executive committee will be presenting their plan for the upcoming year, including plans related to campus safety. Students can also attend an ASPSU Senate meeting on Oct. 20, which will feature further discussion more specific to campus safety. Other events are in the works and will be announced as details become available.
Noll issued a call to students to be proactive about the issues important to them.
“We need students to engage. We can’t afford to be left behind in this process.”
Additional reporting by Sam Bakkila and Colleen Leary