Hundreds of members of the Portland State community voiced their frustration and critiques regarding the Margolis Healy report recommendation to retain armed PSU officers.
The community responded at a special Board of Trustees meeting on March 7 in the Smith Student Memorial Union Ballroom as a result of the campus public safety report.
Comments were directed at the Board and at members of Margolis Healy, who also attended the meeting to present and answer questions about the report.
Board Chair Gale Castillo has said that a final decision will be made in May or June and that PSU will form a campus safety committee made up of students, faculty and staff. This committee will do outreach across campus to gather responses to the report from the PSU community to inform the Board.
Armament and Alternatives
The most controversial recommendation in Margolis Healy report was to retain armed campus police officers. Though the report also recommended that the university change how armed officers are deployed, such as having their primary focus on dangerous situations, and to increase the presence of non-sworn officers, many students and faculty felt that this decision did not represent the wishes of the PSU community to disarm campus police.
“You’re upset there is a wedge between students and campus police; you created this wedge,” said student Olivia Pace, senator for the Associated Students of PSU and member of PSU Student Union. “You created a police force in direct defiance of a community that you should be accountable to, but of course you’re not accountable to us. You cannot continue to empower security on our campus to use violence to solve these problems. It is not working.”
Student Board member Antonio Leiva asked members of Margolis Healy why they made the recommendation to retain armed officers when “the majority of people” wanted to disarm.
“I don’t want to quibble about the majority or not the majority,” replied Steven Healy, chief executive officer of Margolis Healy. “The majority of the respondents of the survey, representing 14 percent of your community, oppose armament. So I think it’s important to be accurate about that—52 percent of 14 percent of the folks in your campus community oppose arming.”
Healy also explained the highest risk of disarming campus police is being unable to respond in a timely manner to a potentially violent situation.“Relying on the local police to respond to your campus where they don’t know your campus…we believe that creates a significant delay,” he said.
In addition, Portland Police Bureau has said it is not interested in providing security for PSU campus as they are experiencing challenges with staffing already, according to Ronnell Higgins, senior associate at Margolis Healy and chief of police at Yale University.
Healy added there should be more training and focus on the non-sworn officers, and to develop training for those officers comparable to the level of training provided for sworn officers.
Board member Maude Hines inquired about the recommendations regarding non-lethal weapons.
“We didn’t make any recommendations about non-lethal weapons,” Healy said. “I think embedded within the recommendations [about alternatives] we talked about whether folks would continue to have batons and [pepper spray].”
PSU student Kaitlyn Dey, member of PSUSU, presented a counter-proposal to the Board, which included disarming and disbanding the campus public safety office and investing in non-police alternatives, such as de-escalation and bystander intervention programs.
“We do not want law enforcement to be replaced with more law enforcement,” Dey said. “In fact we believe this was a fundamental problem with Margolis Healy report. Margolis Healy is made up of former law enforcement officials, which means they are always going to give us law enforcement alternatives.”
While Jason Washington’s death was not investigated by Margolis Healy, it was still the focal point of many testimonies given by members of the public as they responded to Margolis Healy’s recommendation to retain armed campus police.
Dozens of Disarm PSU student activists attended the meeting holding signs reminding members of the Board of the fatal incident. Andre Washington, brother of Jason Washington and PSU alumnus, participated in public comment. Washington’s wife and three daughters also attended the meeting.
Andre brought up his problem with the use of the term “21st century policing” in the report, a task force initiative born under the Obama administration after the fatal shooting of a black man in Ferguson, Mo, by police officers.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police defines 21st century policing as “The IACP defines 21st Century Policing strategies as best practices designed to help agencies promote effective crime reduction while building public trust and safeguarding officer well-being
“When you use language like 21st century policing, it has everything to do with Jason Washington,” Andre said.
The report recommended 21st century policing training to all department members, and states that the task force initiative “continues to serve as a blueprint for strengthening community policing and building substantive and sustainable collaboration between the police and the public they serve.”
“Disarm CPSO immediately,” Andre said. “One life, Jason Washington’s life, was enough, actually it was too much…I’ll be around until the guns are put down.”
Another student used Washington’s death to support armament of campus police during her statement to the Board.
After describing her own understanding of the incident, the student said “Long story short, there’s a drunk guy with a gun who is not following orders, and in my opinion that’s a very scary situation, especially on a college campus. All of this is entirely disregarded when disarm PSU claims that Jason Washington was unjustifiably shot at.”
The testimony was cut short by an outcry from both the family and student activists, who shouted over her, telling her to stop and breaking into a chant of “disarm PSU, disarm PSU.”
Castillo requested the student be given a chance to finish her comment.
“She’s saying he deserved it,” said one of Washington’s daughters. “[She was] just telling me that my dad deserved it.”
The student ended her testimony short and exited the ballroom. Another student attempted to use Washington’s death to support armament at the end of the public comment section, but was also silenced by student activists.
Several community members took issue with how houseless communities were characterized in the report, which refers to the houseless and houselessness around 108 times.
Associate Professor Greg Townley, director of research for the Homeless Research and Action Collaborative on campus, said that HRAC is deeply concerned with the report.
“[HRAC] voiced concerns of research methodology in the report, and the reports reinforcement of erroneous and damaging misinformation about individuals experiencing homelessness,” Townley said.
He also explained that the report is misleading because it uses percentages of respondents instead of the actual number of respondents from the survey.
“This can serve to misrepresent the magnitude of the concerned among a very small subgroup,” Townley said. “From the respondents, 14.2 percent reported feeling unsafe on campus, 10.6 percent of these respondents felt unsafe because of [houseless]/non-students in the buildings and classrooms. This corresponds to 61 respondents: a mere one percent of the 4,145 who were surveyed.”
He also criticized the way in which the report “conflates [houselessness] with drug use and criminality,” and cites a recent report from the National Coalition for the Homeless which said that homeless individuals are far more likely to be victims of violent crime.
“It is erroneous and damaging to make assumptions about people’s housing status based on their behaviors,” Townley said.
Student Benjamin Donlon, member of Right 2 Survive, also took issue with how both the report and the university has tackled the issue of houselessness.
Many members of the public took issue with the social science methodology used by Margolis Healy while collecting data from community members, particularly with the survey.
Several faculty members specifically took issue with a “double-barreled” question on the survey which asked whether or not respondents supported trained, armed campus police officers.
“This casts major doubt on the validity of this question and the accuracy of the responses to the question,” Townley said. “Follow up comments show the respondents had answered affirmatively to questions based on their support of having trained officers without necessarily advocating for them to be armed officers.”
“This brings into question the central conclusion of the report,” he said.
Assistant Professor Megan Horst for Urban studies and planning pointed out the lack of “robust analysis of the respondents,” such as whether students lived on campus, commuted or only took classes online.
Marisa Zapata, professor of urban planning, said “some of the findings contradict one another, such as saying that PSU should be innovative or saying that campus safety lacks a coherent strategy. How can you recommend an entity maintaining lethal weapons of force when they lack a coherent policing strategy?”
Zapata also found it important to “not allow the Margolis Healy report to function as a driver of the conversation, rather it should be put into the cacophony of voices and reports and data already available on campus.”