PSU alters security plan with armed officers, unarmed 'ambassadors'
Portland State University plans to bolster its campus police officers and add additional security measures, despite ardent calls from students and residents to remove all armed officers from the campus.
PSU President Stephen Percy said Thursday, Oct. 10, the plans were part of a campus safety plan. The university wants to employ 10 armed campus officers and 10 unarmed officers, to meet original goals laid out in previous versions of security plans for the campus. That would take the current six sworn officers to 10, and match that with 10 non-sworn positions.
Additionally, PSU's plan relies on student policing via what university officials are calling campus ambassadors. A minimum of 10 students would be paid $15 an hour and receive training to help patrol campus areas day and night, and escort students around campus during evening hours, according to the plan.
"Policing and public safety in a large urban campus is a very ... complex activity," Percy told reporters Thursday. "To have the full array of services you might need to provide strong campus public safety requires a lot of different resources and assets, and one of those is the capacity and expertise of sworn public safety officers, coupled with unsworn officers and our new student safety ambassadors."
PSU's board of trustees did not take action on the safety plan. Instead, Percy said the plan was developed with the university's student union, with student feedback in mind and recommendations from an outside consulting agency
"This issue touches our campus at the deepest levels," board Vice President Margaret Kirkpatrick said Thursday. "No single approach will satisfy every member of our community, yet we are a community that at our best, we protect one another despite our differences. We are a community committed to supporting each other."
Kirkpatrick said the board would ask for regular updates after the plan is implemented. Additionally, college officials said they would strengthen the University Public Safety Oversight Committee, made up of staff, students, faculty and the community. Board members do not sit on the oversight committee.
Percy said student input showed that "many students have a broad concern about being safe on campus," but those students have varying expectations of what safety is and looks like.
To address that, his plan proposes:
• 10 armed campus safety officers; 10 unarmed officers and a minimum of 10 student safety ambassadors
• Additional training for campus police officers, including de-escalation techniques and building relationships with diverse groups they encounter at PSU
• More guidance from mental health professionals when responding to people in crisis
• Added security features like lighting, cameras and electronic access pads at entrances
'No one has listened'
Critics question move to bolster private police force in high traffic public areas. The new safety plan is likely to have a greater impact on the general public than it does on PSU students. That's because PSU's campus is spread out in 50 buildings over 50 acres in downtown Portland. That means students traverse the city's downtown streets to get to and from classes, and PSU cops find themselves interacting with the city's non-student population frequently.
Critics say that issue raises broader questions about the role the university's private police force should play in policing Portland's general population.
When PSU developed its own sworn police force back in December 2014, it relied on arrest data from a study, that found that 81% percent of people arrested on campus were unaffiliated with the university, 41% of whom had at least one prior arrest for a violent crime. Among those with a criminal history, 14% involved the use of a weapon.
Campus security officers are trained and certified by the state and privately hired by PSU. They use body cameras while on duty and are expected to activate them during every interaction they have with the public.
"We learned that people who experience homelessness may be better served by health and support services rather than a campus public safety officer," Percy noted, highlighting plans to strengthen mental health services and rely on mental health professionals for guidance in public safety.
Plans to ramp up the number of gun-carrying campus cops came amid calls to "disarm PSU." Those calls were amplified in 2018, following the shooting death of Jason Washington by campus police.
Washington, 45, was shot and killed by PSU officers on June 29, 2018, following a fight outside the Cheerful Tortoise bar near the PSU campus. Washington was armed with a friend's gun. Police fired several rounds at him when he didn't drop his weapon.
The incident led to a comprehensive review of the university's campus public safety practices, with nine different listening forums and consultation with PSU's student union, but on Thursday, many said students' voices were ignored when crafting the latest plan.
Students, alumni and Portland residents filled the board meeting room Thursday, wearing shirts with Washington's photo, while others held signs and chanted, "boycott PSU" during public comments.
The board heard from Washington's wife, Michelle, who gave a tearful account of how her husband's death devastated their family and left their daughters without a father and grandfather.
"Our world has been destroyed," she said. "These students back here told you guys years ago that this would happen and no one has listened."
"You're talking about healing, open discussions," Olivia Pace, a recent PSU graduate and former student union member said. "It's not going to happen as long as black and brown people are in fear of being killed on this campus."
A previous version of this story misstated Margaret Kirkpatrick's position on the board.
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