Students traveled to the state capitol to speak to lawmakers about the possibility of disarming the campus police forces of two of Oregon’s largest public universities, Portland State and University of Oregon.
PSU alum and Oregon House Representative Diego Hernandez, D–Portland, partnered with the Oregon Student Association to introduce House Bill 3338, which would “prohibit police officers commissioned by public universities from carrying firearms if the public university is located in a city with a population exceeding 150,000.”
Portland students, faculty and law enforcement officials gave testimony during a public hearing on March 21 in Salem before the state legislature’s House Committee On Judiciary, speaking both in favor and in opposition to the proposed bill.
“The question we are faced with is: Do we continue down the path of militarization of our public education system as a response to growing poverty, immense income inequality, gun violence and mass shootings?” Hernandez said. “Moving toward more policing of communities and arming our schools may be a soothing short term solution for some, but it diverts attention from the root causes of violence, and sinks scarce resources into surface-level symptoms while doing little to enhance public health and safety in the deeper sense.”
During the hearing, PSU’s Director of Government Relations Kevin Neely announced a committee composed of students, faculty and staff will be formed within the next seven days to review a recently completed—and controversial—assessment of campus public safety policies and practices before submitting recommendations to PSU’s Board of Trustees.
“It’s the Board’s highest priority right now,” Neely said. “We appreciate the committee’s interest in this important topic, and I would respectfully request you withhold taking action on this bill.”
For PSU students and faculty in support of the bill and who also opposed the Board of Trustees initial decision to arm campus police in 2014, a lack of confidence in the Board’s ability to address their concerns around campus safety was the reason for going to the legislature in the first place.
“I just want to address the question of why we can’t deal with this on a local basis at our school,” said Alexander Read, member of PSU’s student government and the PSU Student Union. “Effectively, students staff and faculty have been shut out from any form of say or governance at this school.”
Other student supporters of the bill cited disproportionate police violence against marginalized groups and unfulfilled commitments of training and oversight for armed officers as reasons for their support of the bill.
“I’d like to highlight that I’m missing my final,” said Maria Alejandra Gallegos-Chacón, Associated Students of the University of Oregon president, who spoke in favor of the bill. “We wouldn’t have done that if this didn’t mean the world to us.”
Opponents of the bill who spoke at the hearing included university administrators, law enforcement representatives and University of Oregon Police Department student employees.
Law enforcement officials, including PSU Campus Public Safety Office Chief of Police Donnell Tanksley, told legislators that internal campus police forces are uniquely qualified to address the safety challenges of PSU’s urban campus and guns are required to respond to a variety of dangerous situations.
“Unarmed police means no police,” said Matthew Carmichael, University of Oregon chief of police. “Our campus police with our specialized services would go away, but police with guns would still be on campus…they would probably work for another agency, but not the university.”
Additional testimony supporting and opposing the bill was also submitted for the public record.
PSU’s move to arm sworn officers in 2013 was opposed by student and faculty governments prior to the transition and both PSU and UO’s student governments have made disarming their campus police forces a priority. OSA, which represents 130,000 students statewide as a student-led advocacy and organizing nonprofit, also worked with Hernandez, who is a former member, to introduce the bill.
A recently released independent assessment of campus safety at PSU conducted by consulting firm Margolis Healy found that a majority of students, faculty and staff were in support of disarming PSU’s campus police force. Despite these findings, the report’s authors recommended the campus retain its armed police force.
The report, which was referred to by both supporters and opponents of the bill, has itself become controversial. On more than one occasion, PSU faculty members have raised concerns about the rigor and methodology of the report, claiming its data collection methods do not meet academic research standards and its statistical representations of information are misleading.
“This is a report that has been put forward as being a set of conclusions about policing on campus based on data and evidence, including several social science tools like surveys, interviews, data review, et cetera,” said Lisa Bates, PSU associate professor in the School of Urban Studies and Planning during a March 13 PSU Board of Trustees Finance and Administration Committee meeting. “As scholars who work with these tools and methods, we have found very significant issues with the data collection and analysis at almost every step.”
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