Pressure on Board of Trustees to disarm campus police increases

A general assembly of students voted to disband the occupation after Portland State’s Board of Trustees Oct. 4 meeting. The decision came after 10 days of occupying PSU Campus Public Safety office and shortly after participating in over three hours of public comment and testimony at the Board of Trustees meeting.

The occupation site was all but deserted even before the decision, as the occupiers joined other students, alumni, faculty, staff and community members in the Lincoln Performance Hall for the first PSU Board of Trustees meeting since the death of Jason Washington at the hands of campus police officers Shawn McKenzie and James Dewey. Both the venue and agenda were changed to allow increased participation and extended public comment on Washington’s death and campus public safety policy.

The family of Washington, a Black Navy veteran, sat in the second row among the audience.

The PSU Student Union delivered over 6,000 signatures to the board supporting three demands: the immediate disarmament of campus police, the dismissal of McKenzie and Dewey—although McKenzie has already left the campus public safety force—and the creation of a permanent memorial for Washington.

A delegation from the University of Oregon attended the meeting and included two top student representatives who called for the disarmament.

“I am here because I wanted you to know that the state is watching,” said Maria Gallegos Chacon, president of the Associated Students of the University of Oregon. UO began arming police officers a year before the establishment of its own Board of Trustees in 2014.

The Associated Students of Lane Community College also published a letter in support of the three demands.

Previous letters from the School of Social Work and other departments have challenged assertions by administrators that an armed police force makes campus safer by protecting against potential active shooter incidents and sexual assault cases.

Marisa Zapata, associate professor at the Nohad A. Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning, encouraged board members to bring an equity lens to their considerations of how armed officers impact particular groups within the campus community.

“We know without doubt that armed police have more violent interactions with people of color and people with mental illness than with white people and people who are able-bodied,” Zapata said.

Ben Anderson-Nathe, associate professor of child, youth and family studies in the School of Social Work, emphasized the role of the faculty in supporting student activism on campus.

“Your faculty have been here before you, and we will be here after you are gone,” Anderson-Nathe said. “We will stand in the tradition of academic freedom, which allows us to speak truth to power.”

The Board of Trustees has undergone a few changes since its last meeting in June. Board Chair Rick Miller abruptly resigned with little fanfare, while Antonio Leiva, an active member of the campus community and Associated Students of PSU senator, began his term a week before the ASPSU and CPSO ad-hoc committee meeting on Oct. 5.

During its first meeting of the school year on Oct. 1, PSU’s Faculty Senate scheduled a special session for Oct. 15 where the senate would meet with only a single item on the agenda: a discussion of campus policing.

“After considerable consultation with my fellow members of the steering committee, the president and the oversight committee, I and we have decided that the senate needs to play a role in that process of public comment,” said Faculty Senate Presiding Officer Thomas Luckett.

A straw poll of the 62 senators on holding the extra meeting yielded 2 votes in opposition and 7 abstentions.

Jose Padin, a non-senate tenure-track faculty member in the sociology department, called into question the necessity of further review and research before an evidence-based discussion on campus safety could occur.

“Back when this issue came to the Senate three or four years ago,” Padin said, “the question often was ‘What’s the evidence to show arming campus police would make for a safer campus environment?’ The evidence bearing on that question does not require these investigations.”

CPSO recently released its annual campus security report. Since 1990, the Clery Act has required colleges and universities receiving federal aid to record and disclose information about crime on and near their respective campuses.

A 2017 fact sheet from the U.S. Department of Justice on school and campus crime drawing on Clery data noted that overall campus crime decreased 35 percent from 2005–2014.

The sheet also points out the limitations of reporting, including researcher estimates that over half of campus crime occurs less than 500 feet off campus. Due to both reporting requirements and crimes remaining unknown because they were not reported, many elements that contribute to campus safety are not reflected in official statistics.

Out of 31 individuals who signed up for public comment, only one spoke out against disarming campus police.

Kathryn Lechter, a transfer student from Eugene, moved to Portland last fall and lives on campus. “After I talked I was approached by two different students who said they felt the same but they were very scared to talk,” Lechter said.

In an interview Lechter said she briefly visited the occupation outside CPSO, but felt intimidated and reluctant to engage with student activists calling for disarmament.

Lechter acknowledged that, like many students, she was still learning about campus safety issues. She went on to describe positive interactions with campus police and shared her concern that officers might be put in harm’s way if unarmed during confrontations.

“I can at least understand where the anger is coming from,” she said. “Focusing on guns is a way to try to address larger issues, which are mental illness, homelessness and the history of systemic racism in Portland.”

“I had to take a break at one point from the auditorium, because there was so much anger,” Lechter said. “Somebody came out who had a #disarmpsu shirt, and they said: I vehemently disagree with you, but I respect you.”

Lechter also said she would definitely be in favor of supporting a memorial, and that Washington’s family should be involved in the process.

“I think the place to start trying to heal things or at least address them, is to start by acknowledging that something happened that shouldn’t have happened.”