Officials from the administration and Campus Public Safety Office held an open forum on Oct. 7 to make a presentation on campus safety and gather input from members of the Portland State community regarding a current proposal to transition CPSO to a sworn police force. Over 160 people attended.
PSU President Wim Wiewel introduced the forum by stating that “without safety, nothing else really matters…There’s no dispute about the goal that we share, which is to have a safe work and learning environment for everybody, even as there might be different opinions about how to achieve that.”
President Wiewel noted that the final decision will be made by PSU’s governing body, the Board of Trustees, and that there is still time to deliberate on the issue.
Wiewel said he had been resistant to a deputized campus police force in the past. Wiewel formed the Task Force on Campus Safety in 2012, citing the Reynolds High School shooting and other national events as reasons for his consideration of a sworn police force.
“I cannot feel that I am acting responsibly and executing the responsibility I have for keeping people safe, by continuing the way we have,” Wiewel said.
A complex task
The first half of the forum was a presentation of the findings by the Task Force, given by Kris Henning, a professor from the College of Urban and Public Affairs and member of the Task Force.
Henning said the Task Force reviewed data provided by CPSO and other institutions around the country. They conducted outreach in the community through forums and smaller, targeted focus groups and interviews.
“The first thing we learned is, there has been significant progress made addressing campus safety at PSU over a period of years,” Henning said.
Several changes have been made to campus procedures, including those regarding access and identification, lighting on campus and increased coordination with other campus offices.
The Task Force compared PSU’s campus safety resources and crime statistics with other college campuses. They found that PSU has the highest rate of both property and violent crimes of any higher education institution in Oregon.
When compared to 21 other urban universities, PSU has the lowest rate of violent crimes and is in the middle range for property crimes. PSU is the only university in this group that does not have a sworn campus police force.
Oregon Health and Science University and University of Oregon created sworn safety departments, but waited for a substantial period of one to two years before arming their officers.
The Task Force detailed the understaffing of CPSO. They cited a lack of resources dedicated to the services the office must provide 24 hours a day to a campus that hosts over 30,000 people, and spans dozens of buildings and multiple city blocks.
“One of the other things we found was that campus safety here at PSU has been chronically understaffed,” Henning added.
While the campus population has doubled since 1995, the number of officers has only grown from 15 to 19 in that same period.
According to statistics offered in the presentation, if PSU had an officer-to-student ratio that was in the average range for similar universities, the department would have 121 officers—an approximately 500% increase from current levels. While the current proposals would raise PSU’s ratio from 0.6 officers per 1000 students to 1.1 per 1000 students, still well below an average rate of 4.1 officers per 1000 students, and also below the ratio maintained by three other Oregon institutions.
The plan, with a projected cost of $1.5 million would be implemented over three years. Specifically, that proposal would transition CPSO into a bifurcated, two-tiered department, and a staff of 16 sworn, potentially armed officers, while approximately retaining the current level of civilian officers employed in the department.
The Task Force also considered the potential of an active shooter situation and issues of accountability related to profiling and use of force.
The best response, the Task Force offered, “is one that allows PSU [on-site] access to dedicated professionals who are part of the PSU ethos and community, and have sworn police officer status.”
Dr. Kevin Reynolds, the interim vice president of Finance and Administration, presented a detailed picture of the outreach about campus safety issues that has taken place since 2011. During 2013 and 2014, there were over 60 outreach efforts including publications, presentations and forums.
Reynolds also highlighted the ways that PSU has taken steps on all the access control recommendations put forth by the committee, which are all in progress or in place. The importance of access control was emphasized by pointing to the fact that in spring of 2013, four attacks on female individuals took place within PSU’s academic buildings on weekends. Those crimes included robbery, public indecency and attempted rape.
Addressing questions that have been raised over the past year regarding the issue of a potential police force on campus, Reynolds said that if established, the department would be accountable to an oversight committee, whose membership would be decided by the university president, and consist of faculty, staff and students.
Training, recruitment and cultural competence are other areas that have been considered. Of the cost, Reynolds said he thinks of it in terms of other investments that the university has a history of making, such as tenure track hires, research and sustainability.
Pleading the case for the proposal
The first segment neared its end with CPSO Chief Phil Zerzan, who presented a set of arguments for the implementation of a sworn police force specific to PSU.
Focusing on issues of jurisdiction, which would be broadened if the transition to sworn officers were to occur, Zerzan illustrated the limitations of his officers.
“My officers currently operate in between the status of security guards and sworn police officers,” he said. “With that patchwork of jurisdiction, my officers can walk from the Science Research and Teaching Center to the Market Center Building and walk in and out of jurisdiction between five and eight times, depending on whether they walk into Starbucks or not. That makes it extremely difficult to provide consistent law enforcement.”
Sworn officers, on the other hand, would not be limited to university controlled property.
Community raises intersecting issues
During the concluding segment of the forum dedicated to questions and comments, students, staff, faculty and members of the community took turns speaking to address the issue at hand. The students who stood up to speak expressed a wide range of concerns and opinions.
One student, who identified herself as a survivor of sexual assault, endorsed the proposal in hopes that it would decrease the time that survivors would have to wait for follow up on their cases.
Several students stood up and raised concerns over police violence toward individuals and communities of color.
Political science student David Martinez said, “I believe that instead of bringing a sense of security onto the campus, that police will bring a sense of insecurity to these students.”
Other students asked for more student involvement in the decision-making process and the creation of alternatives to an armed presence on campus. Members of the PSU Student Union stood together to formally request that the Board of Trustees delay its vote on the current proposal until alternatives to deputization can be seriously considered.
Danielle Ali-Cassim, who identified herself as a senior and a student of color, reminded the audience that “we have the option, even if our officers are sworn, to not arm them with guns” and relayed that PSU’s Black Student Union would like to have conversations about alternatives to officers with guns on campus.
Many who stood up, if they were not explicitly opposed to all aspects of the proposal, sought alternatives to the prospect of more guns on campus.
“Guns do kill people who look like me and my children. Find another answer,” one student urged. “Invest more of our time, our talent, and put more money behind it. You want more officers? You can have them, but no more guns.”
Zerzan responded to the concerns that had been brought forward, acknowledging that “policing in America is fraught by a history of institutional racism and really poor relationships with communities of color. This is an opportunity to create a police department whose history begins the day the police department begins.”
PSU’s Board of Trustees has formed a committee from their ranks to further explore the issue of campus policing. Their first meeting will take place on Oct. 27 from 3–6 p.m. in the Willamette Room of the University Place Hotel. There will be an opportunity for members of the public to attend and sign up to offer comments at the meeting.
The Board of Trustees will meet to discuss, and potentially vote, on the proposal on Dec. 11.
Video of the event, the Powerpoint presentation that was delivered, frequently asked questions and links to submit feedback are available at pdx.edu/insidepsu/psu-community-speaks-out-on-campus-safety.