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PSU critics say they feel less safe with guns, not more, even after UCC shooting

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Local university campuses debate arming their officers, like this Sheriff's deputy.

The Oct. 1 shooting on the Umpqua Community College campus has underscored a passionate debate on Portland State University’s campus over the Board of Trustees’ recent decision to arm members of its campus security.

Beginning July 1, the first four armed police officers joined the now bifurcated public safety department, with another eight police to be phased in over three years. This has sparked several protests from student groups — including an interruption, walkout and rally during President Wim Wiewel’s convocation speech Sept. 21.

Phil Zerzan, head of PSU campus security, says the university needs police powers to do things like continue a criminal investigation off-campus or respond more effectively to an incident of rape.

“People always try and reduce this down to a discussion about guns, and it’s much more complex than that,” Zerzan says. “We’re not talking about guns, we’re talking about having the police authority.”

Oregon universities historically have had unarmed peace officers, who have the authority only to stop a crime in progress, not to investigate or capture a suspect. This is still the case at most community colleges, including UCC and Portland Community College campuses.

In order to have armed guards, in recent years many universities have created an on-campus police department with officers trained at the 16-week Oregon Public Safety Academy in Salem.

University departments then often add other specialized training. Zerzan says that in response to the PSU implementation committee’s requirements, his officers received about 40 hours on topics such as microaggression, implicit bias, mental health response and LGBTQ issues.

“It’s not just about having an active shooter response, although that’s important. It’s about having a law enforcement response that is more consistent with the values and tenor of the campus.”

Good guys not always good

But to PSU junior Alyssa Pagan, a member of Disarm PSU, the added police authority and attitude feels more dangerous. She agrees that the issue is not exactly about firearms but about the escalation that can occur with people of color or people with mental illness.

“I just think that the issue is deeper than guns or no guns,” Pagan says. “I think that it has more to do with systemic racism and the militarization of the world as a tool to oppress people who rise up.”

Pagan doesn’t feel that the board of trustees, which voted 9-3 in June to implement the policy, listened to the community’s concerns. The majority of crime on campus is property damage or theft, and Pagan doesn’t see why officers need to be armed to respond to those crimes.

Some members of PSU’s new force were formerly Portland Police officers, and Pagan says she worries about the bureau’s bad reputation for interacting with people of color and people with mental illness. However, she adds that if an active shooter situation arose at PSU, the bureau’s Main Precinct, five blocks away, could respond.

A student of women and gender studies, Pagan says the mass shooting in Roseburg makes her worry even more about the forces of “toxic masculinity,” a relatively new sociology term to describe the pressure men feel to be aggressive, violent or in control.

“So many conservative white men feel that they are losing their country,” she argues, “and because of the ease of access to firearms, many of them feel the need to shoot people as a way to reclaim power.”

UCC shooter Christopher Sean Harper-Mercer, 26, described himself on social media as mixed race and nonreligious with “conservative, republican” political views.

COURTESY PORTAND COMMUNITY COLLEGE - Portland Community College held a moment of silence Friday at noon in honor of the victims of the Umpqua Community College shooting. Sylvania campus President Lisa Avery led the Sylvania moment of silence.

Officers receive specialized training

At Oregon Health & Science University, 25 officers have been armed for a little more than a year. The decision came after a blue ribbon panel convened to discuss options in the wake of the April 2007 Virginia Tech shooting.

Vice President of Campus Security Greg Moawad says in the past year there have been two cases in which officers drew their guns, and both were resolved without gunfire.

Moawad says that in addition to the 16 weeks of police academy training, his officers receive another 130 hours of training and 96 hours of annual trainings on communication and de-escalation tactics.

“We have focused our training on dealing with folks in crisis, and uniquely so,” he says.

Moawad says the Portland Police Bureau takes seven to 15 minutes to respond to situations at OHSU, most of which comprises a complex warren of buildings atop Marquam Hill.

“That’s simply too long,” he says. “What we have found in these (active shooter) incidents across the country is that time equals lives.”

Moawad is not enthusiastic about arming his officers at an institution dedicated to academics, research and healthcare.

“Having to introduce firearms into those environments is hard for everybody, but it’s a sad reality of the national environment that we live in.”

Shasta Kearns Moore
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