The PSU Police arm patch on an officer's uniform.

CPSO begins “unarmed” patrols, keeps guns

Portland State made a stand last spring when it declared that Campus Public Safety Office (CPSO) officers would begin “fully unarmed campus patrols” before the 2021 fall term began. CPSO Chief Willie Halliburton said this makes PSU’s CPSO the first university safety department in the United States to shift back to unarmed patrols. Part of that plan was keeping all firearms locked in the CPSO, but it appears that isn’t what’s happening.


“I don’t have [my pistol] right here [on my belt], but I have it in the back, secured; if I needed to gather it I could,” explained Campus Police Officer Charles Evans. “If there’s a known weapon, the call will be routed over to Portland [Police Bureau, PPB]. We’ll generally arm ourselves, but we won’t engage unless we absolutely have to.”


PSU President Stephen Percy and Halliburton previously assured in interviews that all CPSO firearms would be securely stored inside the CPSO offices, only to be checked out with approval from Halliburton or the supervisor on duty. 


“There hasn’t been a situation where we needed our weapons since I’ve been Chief here,” Haliburton said in an interview on Oct. 6, after detailing two incidents in the last month when he authorized officers to retrieve firearms before approaching a scene. 


“One [incident] was due to the fact that a person was slumped in a car and we had no idea what was wrong with them,” Halliburton said, explaining that Portland Police were called. But, due to PPB being busy, Halliburton authorized campus police officers to equip themselves with firearms before returning to the scene. Upon returning to the scene, according to Halliburton, the person and the car were both gone. The other incident involved someone laying on a bench with a “long sword-like knife,” according to Halliburton, prompting him to arm sworn officers before approaching the person to talk.


Since the conversation about armed campus police first started with the passage of a 2011 bill, members of the PSU community have been resistant to the idea of campus cops with guns. Last month, the CPSO appeared to have made good on their promise to shift all sworn officers to patrolling without firearms by Sept. 1, 2021. Critics, including campus advocacy group DISARMPSU, call this a small step—but not nearly enough.


“Implementing ‘unarmed patrols’ continues to be conflated with ‘disarming’ CPSO, and faculty, staff, students, administrators and even local media are confused,” said Corinne Gould of the PSU School of Business and DisarmPSU.


Amber and Cassidy, two PSU students living on campus, were glad to hear the plans for unarmed patrols but somewhat unclear on what this meant.


“I got an email about how they want to get them unarmed and I think that’s great,” Cassidy said. “A taser is enough, pepper spray is enough, but a gun is kind of a life sentence,” Amber added.


Another concern being raised is the fact that CPSO only has officers available from 6 a.m.–8 p.m., with PPB poised to respond to calls overnight. When asked about their thoughts on the matter, Amber and Cassidy seemed surprised. 


“That kind of defeats the purpose because I feel like any issues would happen at night,” said Amber, who regularly walks back to her dorm at night when her class gets out at 9:00 p.m. “I’d much rather deal with security than police,” she remarked before the pair scooped up their grocery bags and headed on their way.


Halliburton, who moved here over 30 years ago to join Portland’s community policing program, said he can’t see a future without police on campus. “I think Portland State University deserves to have sworn police officers and a police presence here,” Halliburton said. “Portland Police cannot do it. They’re down 160 officers over the last year,” referring to the large numbers of Portland officers who left recently, citing frustrations with oversight, city council, use-of-force reporting requirements and getting flipped off as they drive around.


For Gould, however, police are not the only option. “I want as many people as possible to know about the many alternatives to policing that exist,” Gould said. “If you are on campus and perceive a threat, that is valid, and you deserve a response that will meet your needs and actually keep the community safe.”


Hannah Alzgal, a junior at PSU studying International Relations, feels like the university has co-opted DisarmPSU’s ideas and watered them down for the sake of optics, “only to have doubled down to include PPB in the partnership and merely store weapons away in a locker that we lack public knowledge on their access to them.” 


To Gould, disarming PSU means preventative measures are taken “so that state violence does not occur on its campus nor by its employed force again. As far as I see as a student, no such measures have ever been taken to prevent another life being robbed like Jason Washington’s was.”

The PSU Campus Public Safety Office’s boarded-up entrance. The door is locked, but a laminated piece of copy paper taped to one of the boards reads “CALL CPSO 503-725-5911” Sean Bascom/Portland State Vanguard