According to Chief of Campus Public Safety Willie Halliburton, despite having to delay disarming campus security, officers who hold the rank of lieutenant or higher began patrolling unarmed on Jan. 1, and all other officers will start patrolling firearm-free by the end of the academic year.
“I’d like to confirm my deepest steadfast commitment to unarmed patrols here at PSU,” Halliburton said. “It will happen. It will happen this academic school year.”
In August, the university announced plans to disarm its campus security after years of activism from students and faculty calling on the university to do so, especially after campus security shot and killed Jason Washington, a Black man, at a bar near campus in 2018. The initial announcement in August stated officers would begin unarmed patrols in the fall. However, due to staffing and administrative challenges, that goal was not met.
The Associated Students of Portland State University (ASPSU) held a virtual town hall with Halliburton, President Stephen Percy, General Counsel Cindy Starke and Associate Vice President of Global Diversity and Inclusion Julie Caron on Dec. 11. The panelists answered questions from PSU community members about the decision to disarm campus security, and why the initial projection that officers would begin patrolling firearm-free in the fall had to be delayed.
The town hall was held in an effort to increase transparency between PSU administration and the campus community around the issue of campus safety.
“There’s probably been no issue that has been more challenging than campus public safety over the last six years,” Percy said in his opening remarks. “Transparency on this issue of public safety, I believe, is vitally important.”
According to Percy, the university is still committed to working towards unarmed patrols, despite experiencing unexpected delays.
“For centuries, American policing has disproportionately targeted and perpetuated violence against people of color, particularly Black people,” Percy said. “We have an opportunity and an obligation to change these patterns at PSU.”
In his opening remarks, Halliburton also emphasized his ongoing commitment to disarming CPSO.
“I know that you can operate an effective and compassionate police force without weapons; in fact, I think it is the best way to go, especially here at PSU,” Halliburton said. “I also believe that PSU should have its own police force, with officers who understand our culture and the uniqueness of our culture.”
After their opening remarks, the panelists answered various questions from PSU community members.
Who are the campus safety stakeholders regarding the decision to disarm campus safety officers, and how are they connected?
According to Percy, two committees play an important role regarding campus safety: The University Public Safety Oversight Committee (UPSOC), and the Reimagining Campus Public Safety Committee.
UPSOC, which was created along with PSU’s sworn police department in 2014, is responsible for overseeing CPSO’s processes and for making recommendations to CPSO to help them best serve the community. The Reimagining Campus Public Safety Committee, a newly created ad hoc committee, is responsible for making recommendations to CPSO as it moves towards unarmed patrols. Both committees are composed of students, faculty and community members.
According to Caron, who serves as the chair of UPSOC, UPSOC is committed to diversity and equity, and is responsible for reviewing changes to policies and procedures, vetting new officers and for giving recommendations to CPSO, among other things.
“We take the oversight really seriously,” Caron said. “We will be vetting copies of the policy for the changes that will be made to patrolling, but we have been evaluating policies and procedures in the past as well, and we always use an equity lens when we’re looking at the policies to see how is this impacting people in a disproportionate manner, and to find ways that we can improve the policy so that they won’t be impacting individuals or groups of people disproportionately.”
According to Percy, the Reimagining Campus Public Safety Committee is responsible for conducting research throughout the year, and for ultimately bringing a set of recommendations to CPSO to help them best serve the needs of PSU.
“The Reimagining Campus Public Safety Committee [is] a special committee appointed with the express purpose of creating a plan to reimagine how we will deliver campus public safety at PSU,” Percy said.
Additionally, Percy said he is working with the Board of Trustees in order to “keep them informed of every step…towards the goal of building an approach to public safety at PSU that does several things, including addresses systemic racism, recognizes the diversity of our community, and honors our dedication to human dignity.”
After new officers are hired and trained, policies and procedures updated, as well as everything else that led to the delay in disarmament, the Reimagining Campus Safety Committee will review all of the changes, make necessary recommendations, and then disband. UPSOC will continue to provide training and oversight for CPSO indefinitely.
What specifically has led to delays in the disarmament of CPSO?
Staff turnover caused significant delays, according to Halliburton. Shortly after the decision to disarm was announced, two sworn officers retired, and a third resigned.
“I did not expect for my officers to depart immediately after that decision was made,” Haliburton said. “It just goes to show that even though we had officers leave, it did not deter our goal.”
Despite the setback, Halliburton also saw this as an opportunity.
“The change in personnel may have set us back in terms of our timeline, but it also created an opportunity to recruit those special individuals who want to do this kind of police work,” Halliburton said. “When we have completed this process, we will have a police agency composed of officers who believe in the concept of unarmed patrols, and will be working with policies and training that supports this groundbreaking shift in police work.”
In addition to staffing issues, hundreds of pages of policies and procedures need to be updated to account for unarmed officers, a process that the panelists said they were hoping to have accomplished by the end of January. CPSO is also in the process of establishing new procedures with the Portland Police Bureau, whose relationship with CPSO will change when CPSO begins patrolling unarmed. Additionally, an external legal review needs to be conducted, and the Reimagining Campus Public Safety Committee and UPSOC will need to approve any new changes.
“We embarked on this process with a great deal of optimism and excitement about starting a new chapter in campus public safety,” Percy said. “We frankly underestimated all of the hurdles.”
“We were all ambitious at first because we thought it could happen by the end of fall, but then when we actually started to create this work, we realized there’s no one we can look to,” said ASPSU President Motu Sipelii. “We’re creating something from scratch. Moving forward, we are being very intentional, and we want to get the right team. We want to do this right.”
According to Halliburton, despite the delays, he believes the decision was made at the right time.
“When we made the decision back in August of this year, I think it needed to be made at that time, because I didn’t want our community to hurt any longer,” Halliburton said. “We did not anticipate these roadblocks, but they’re here, and we’re focusing on them first and foremost.”
Why can’t CPSO immediately disarm?
According to Starke, a statute was passed in 2019 called Kaylee’s Law that altered the landscape of campus security in Oregon. Because of that law, there is no legal route for PSU to remove its sworn police officers.
According to Starke, PSU is one of the first universities, if not the only one in the country, that has decided to disarm its campus security. Because of this, there is no legal playbook to turn to, and so extra precautions are being taken to protect both the safety of officers and the university from lawsuits.
“We’re really creating something completely new here, and we’re going to be a model for others to follow,” Starke said. “As a result of that, we’re developing policies and practices from scratch. We don’t have somebody else to look to to see how they’ve done it. That’s an enormous task, and we’re working hard on it. We’re working with outside experts to help us get it right, because it’s very critical to get it right.”
Halliburton underscored Starke’s point, saying, “There’s no playbook I can pick up and say, oh, this is how you do this. This is new.” He continued, “All I can rely on is talking to people out there who trust in my guidance, first of all, who believe in police work, who believe that police work can be different. It has to be different for our future. It has to change.”
How was the decision to disarm campus security made? Can the decision be reversed?
According to Percy, the decision to disarm campus security was mostly up to Halliburton and CPSO.
During the summer, as Black Lives Matter protests swept the country advocating for police reform—including at the doorstep of CPSO—Halliburton went to Percy with his decision to disarm, “and I supported it very strongly and I thought it definitely something we ought to be doing,” Percy said.
“When we made the announcement back in August, you’ve got to remember where we were as a country, and most importantly as a city,” Halliburton said. “We were hurting. People were hurting. We made the decision based on our environment. People wanted change. Portland State wanted change. This decision was made not only to show the city of Portland, but to show our country, that law enforcement is willing to make the change. We want a better community relationship with law enforcement within the community. So we made that announcement a bit early in some people’s judgement. But the reality is it was the perfect timing to make that announcement to start that healing process, not only for PSU, not only for the city of Portland, but for this country.”
But as to whether or not the decision can be reversed? Percy said that new laws and policies can change anything, and so the decision could theoretically be reversed. However, Percy said that there is no consideration of reversing the decision at this time.
Why didn’t PSU check HR and other legal policies before announcing the decision to disarm?
“At the time we decided to disarm, we thought the feelings and concerns on campus were very deep, and we felt it was important to begin to move forward as quickly as possible on this pathway and announce that to people so they knew we were listening and that we were trying to create change,” Percy said. “So rather than do a lot of legal research and other kinds of analysis to do that, we announced it and said we would work as quickly as possible as we can to make sure that the unarmed patrols can actually work for the force.”
According to Starke, at the time the decision was announced, PSU lacked the legal expertise to adequately assess the legal hurdles.
“We’re higher-ed lawyers in our office,” Starke said. “We don’t have the expertise to really feel confident that we can do this without help from outside experts, and it was a lot more challenging than we expected to find outside experts who were willing to help with a change like this because it’s so groundbreaking, and who had the willingness, the interest and the expertise to be able to do it.”
Since then, according to Starke, PSU has begun working with extra legal counsel concerning disarmament. “We have someone on board now who we have great confidence in,” she said.
What are CPSO’s plans in case of an active shooter situation, or other firearm-related emergencies?
According to Halliburton, despite being disarmed, campus security officers will still be able to do everything a sworn officer can do, such as making arrests and investigating crimes. Officers will also carry non-lethal weapons, such as tasers. Additionally, weapons will be available in the CPSO office for certain situations.
Halliburton also stressed CPSO’s relationship with other law enforcement agencies. “The policies we’re creating, they’re policies meant to protect this campus, meaning that, if there’s a call with weapons involved, or something more than we can handle being unarmed, PPB is ready to respond to those calls,” Halliburton said. “RIght now, PPB does the same thing.”
As far as an active shooter situation, Halliburton said, “Every agency in this area is trained active shooter-wise. If something were to happen here at PSU, I can guarantee you there would be agencies as far as Salem, Oregon responding to our location.”
In what ways can CPSO seek partners and guidance outside of law enforcement?
Halliburton is eager to work with other schools at PSU to provide comprehensive training for CPSO officers in a variety of fields, including the Schools of Social Work, Psychology and others.
“We intend to reach out within our university here to receive more training. The Center for Student Health Counseling, they do it on a weekly basis already. So yes, we want to do it and we look forward to it, and it’s one of the criteria we want to have here at PSU to have our community involved in our training as well.”
Caron added, “That’s what UPSOC is reviewing, is what kind of evidence based training we recommend to CPSO that are outside of the standard training that is happening that are not necessarily coming from other police forces.”
Percy also brought up PSU’s new safety ambassadors, a group of graduate and undergraduate students who patrol campus in groups of two who talk to community members and report suspicious behavior.
Halliburton also discussed PSU’s new physical security manager, who is responsible for assessing PSU’s campus and reporting to CPSO where new lights and cameras should be installed to increase safety. Money has been allocated to install both items in the parking garages, where a majority of thefts on campus occur, according to Percy.
Halliburton remarked towards the end of the event about the officers at CPSO who he said made the decision to disarm possible.
“I’d like to congratulate our officers, the men and women of this department who agreed to work in this fashion,” Halliburton said. “We made the decision to do something a little different, and the officers who are here now are a big part of that decision because they decided to do it as well. I commend those officers, and I commend the families of those officers. That’s a huge step. I just want people to understand that they are a major part of this decision and a major part of how we move forward with this decision.”
Further updates about CPSO will be provided by the PSU administration as changes are made, according to Percy.