The Associated Students of Portland State University met last Monday for a senate meeting that included a presentation on the possibility of the university transitioning to a sworn and armed police force.
Kevin Reynolds, the newly appointed vice president for Finance and Administration, led the presentation, with substantial comments from Phil Zerzan, chief of Campus Public Safety, and Michelle Toppe, dean of Student Life. Forty-five minutes were reserved for questions and comments from ASPSU and the public.
Reynolds presented the findings of the 2013 Task Force on Campus Safety. He focused on comparing the policing model of PSU to peer institutions.
In regards to the Urban 21, a set of universities similar to PSU set in urban centers, Reynolds said, “PSU is an outlier, it’s the only one that doesn’t have a fully sworn police force.”
Reynolds compared the financial implications of transition to a campus police department to different policing options mentioned in the task force, including contracting with the Portland Police Bureau, contracting with the Oregon State Police or collaboration with OHSU. He said that having a campus police department was most likely the most cost-effective choice.
Toppe spoke from her experiences watching campus evolve over time, since she started working at PSU in 1995. She said that student enrollment has dramatically increased since 1995 and the campus itself has been expanded, but campus public safety has not been expanded to match the increased safety needs.
Toppe also wanted to reframe the debate away from its focus on guns, since incidents on campus requiring force are already being responded to by armed members of the Portland Police Bureau.
“The question is not guns or no guns,” she said. “Because if we have an incident that requires a law enforcement response, and they will happen…We are going to need a law enforcement response, and that law enforcement response is going to have a weapon.”
Chief Zerzan spoke about the limitations of policing under the current Campus Public Safety Office structure, including the difficulty in providing a continuity of law enforcement services in a diffuse campus.
“[There are] huge problems with University Pointe, which many people believe is a residence hall…My officers have no authority within that building,” Zerzan said.
Zerzan also noted that the unarmed CPSO would be unable to respond to an armed intruder on campus.
“I can tell you that there are things that my officers cannot do being unarmed,” Zerzan said. “I cannot in good faith ask my officers to go through the door where there is a person with a gun if they do not have the ability to defend themselves.”
ASPSU members and the community focused mainly on issues of racial profiling and the university’s responsibility to do outreach to students of color during this discussion.
ASPSU senator Linda Hoppes noted that the Task Force Report was very focused on comparing PSU to peer institutions, but did not answer the question whether or not the armed police at peer institutions have been successful or led to a reduction in crime.
Chief Zerzan responded that he does not have that data nor does he know if it’s available.
Student Fee Committee chair Alexandra Calloway-Nation asked if there were educational plans being considered so that the proposed deputized police force would not target students of color.
Zerzan noted that any police force on campus would have training to emphasize cultural competency on a daily level, in addition to the basic training at the police academy. Both Zerzan and Toppe emphasized the potential for university-wide collaboration and oversight to prevent racial profiling.
“We certainly have policies that prohibit racial policing now,” Zerzan said. “That is the same kind of ethos and part of the community that a community based police department will have.”
However, not all ASPSU leaders were satisfied with this answer. ASPSU Academic Affairs Director Tia Gomez-Zeller said there’s a lack of cultural competency in the university overall, and some students of color currently feel that they have been profiled by the CPSO.
The meeting also included a presentation from Jen Dugger, the director of the Disability Resource Center.
She noted that her office is primarily concerned with compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and thus it needs to collaborate with student groups in order to achieve its advocacy and outreach goals to create a culture of universal accessibility on campus.
The next ASPSU meeting is on Nov. 3 at 5 p.m. in Smith Memorial Student Union room 236. Student body Vice President Rayleen McMillian noted that campus safety is very likely to come up in future meetings leading up to the Board of Trustee’s decision on Dec. 11.