Portland State trustees: Yes on sworn police

Portland State’s Board of Trustees voted yes on a contentious resolution to build a force of armed sworn police, despite fierce protests by students and faculty. The vote, particularly during an extended debate over a proposed amendment to withhold firearms authorization until a subsequent June vote, exposed a racial divide on the issue that extended to the trustee board itself.

The trustees met for the vote yesterday at the University Place Hotel, where many were forced to step over protesters staging a mock “die-in” to get into the meeting. The meeting included a number of campus measures and provided a forum for public comment by signup, as is standard procedure. Commenters were required to signup 24 hours early, citing a decision to move comments to the beginning of the meeting.

During the vote on the resolution, which passed 11–2, Public Safety Committee Chair Tom Imeson proposed an amendment to withhold deployment of the armed sworn officers until the board’s June 11 meeting, which passed unanimously. Trustee Maude Hines followed up by proposing an amendment to adopt new language to authorize sworn officers while withholding firearms authorization entirely until the June meeting, pointing to insufficient data on the impact of armed police on university campuses.

The trustees debated Hines’s resolution for nearly an hour. Several trustees shared Hines’ concerns, including outgoing Student Trustee Pamela Campos-Palma, who attended digitally via Skype, and Swati Adarkar, the only trustee besides Hines to vote no on the final resolution. Hines’ amendment failed 4–9, a vote that divided almost entirely on racial lines among the trustees. Those opposed to the amendment called the amendment redundant and expressed concerns that prolonging the firearms decision would prolong the “excruciating environment” of tensions on campus.

But protesters disagreed. Many were incensed by treatment toward Hines, including Portland State NAACP President and Associated Students of PSU multicultural affairs director Tony Funchess. Funchess called the trustees’ exchange as “disrespectful and dismissive” of Hines’ concerns—concerns echoed by students and faculty, alike.

“This was an extremely painful process to watch,” he said. “It was disgraceful, and indicative of the dominant culture.”

When asked his stance on board members’ concerns about the measure’s redundancy, Funchess disagreed with the final decision. “There would have been an opportunity to pull credible data,” he said. “We’re an educational institution. We’re taught the research process. They don’t even have any peer-reviewed data.”

“We have just witnessed racial injustice,” he said.

Board member Margaret Kirkpatrick, who voted against Hines’ amendment, echoed concerns about what she viewed as redundancy in the proposed amendment.

“I didn’t really understand, and maybe I should have, what Maude was doing,” she said. “To me, it was a distinction without difference.”

Kirkpatrick admitted that she’d had little contact with the PSU campus before being asked to step into the trustee role. She pointed out that she helped Imeson revise the resolution.

“Originally it was too weak and vague,” she said. “We reworked it. We thought it would be more accommodating and respectful if we could reflect on it and act on it.”

Hines declined to comment on the vote.

Devon Backstrom, former Student Fee Committee chair, criticized the process. He pointed to procedural issues, such as an attempt to pass multiple amendments at once and the board’s failure to allow a commenter to cede their time to another.

“I’m really disappointed in this,” he said. “It’s very real to me to realize that the student government here at PSU actually understands parliamentary procedures better than the board of trustees voting on the measures that we’re implementing across the university.”

Many protesters complained about the resolution’s lack of emphasis on alternative, preventative measures to address campus safety issues. Backstrom pointed out that PSU has little serious crime in comparison to towns with similar population sizes, save sexual assault. But he criticized the board’s enforcement-level approach as ineffective in addressing the issue of sexual assault.

“[They think] the only way to change the situation is at the point of a gun, not by standard intervention, not by primary prevention, not support groups, not trying to change the fact that people feel like they have to be in control in a relationship,” Backstrom said. “Things that go into making that a reality, they’re not addressing. They’re making it worse.”

According to the resolution passed by the board, candidate recruitment for the sworn force will begin immediately, with prospective recruits being enrolled in police academy training in the coming months. But the board must still approve a final resolution before deployment begins, most likely in July 2015. That decision will occur on June 11, 2015.