Portland State’s Campus Public Safety Office (CPSO) has decided to resume armed campus patrols, a policy change which PSU President Stephen Percy presented in his bizarre public announcement as an inevitable fact of nature. That sentiment is a product of an entrenched carceral ideology, and it’s a dangerous one. Having armed campus police is not the only way to keep the PSU community safe—and ultimately, it will cause more harm than good.
Percy’s announcement claimed that, because CPSO officers “are encountering an increasing number of weapons on and near campus,” they are “having to go on most patrols carrying arms.” According to Portland State Vanguard reporting, those weapons included “knives, a hammer, an automatic handgun, rifles and shotguns,” per CPSO Chief Willie Halliburton.
It’s difficult to take CPSO’s reasoning at face value. CPSO officers have shown remarkably poor judgment in their response to weapons in the past, most notably when officers shot and killed Jason Washington in 2018 after Washington had taken a friend’s gun in order to de-escalate a potential fight. What does it say when campus police officers are more trigger-happy than the community they are supposed to protect? Why should we trust their judgment when it comes to using deadly force?
There’s plenty of cause for concern. According to the updated CPSO Policy Manual, published April 2023, officers are permitted to use deadly force “to stop a fleeing subject” when the officer believes the subject “has committed, or intends to commit, a felony involving the infliction or threatened infliction of serious bodily injury or death”—the manual notes that “imminent danger may exist even if the suspect is not at that very moment pointing a weapon at someone.”
Let’s call this what it is: CPSO policy allows officers to shoot and kill a fleeing suspect—in other words, shoot them in the back—if they think that person may possibly use a weapon, or even if they think the person “is capable of causing serious bodily injury or death without a weapon.” And we’re supposed to—what, just believe that officers have an accurate perception of those threats? Shooting someone in the back is monstrous under any circumstances, and it’s hard to take CPSO’s reasoning here on faith.
Additionally, the way CPSO describes these threats reveals some troubling assumptions about how they view subjects. Under the heading for “Medical Attention for Injuries Sustained Using Force,” the manual describes “Persons who exhibit extreme agitation, violent irrational behavior accompanied by profuse sweating, extraordinary strength beyond their physical characteristics and imperviousness to pain,” followed by a parenthetical that notes this is “sometimes called ‘excited delirium.’”
Just to be clear, “excited delirium” is a pseudoscientific diagnosis that is not recognized by any reputable medical organization. The American Psychiatric Association’s Council on Psychiatry and Law released a position statement in 2020 against the use of the term, noting that it has often been “invoked in a number of cases to explain or justify injury or death to individuals in police custody, and the term excited delirium is disproportionately applied to Black men in police custody.” Its inclusion in CPSO’s official policy manual is deeply concerning, and casts doubt on their assessment of threats on campus.
None of these issues would be a concern if campus police didn’t have guns—which is precisely why the community fought to disarm CPSO in the first place.
Having an armed police force is not an inevitability—it’s a choice. CPSO itself has only been armed since 2014, and many countries, such as Norway, Ireland and Botswana, have police that do not regularly carry guns. The United Kingdom serves as one major example of a mostly gun-free police force—90% of London police don’t carry guns in one of the most populated cities in the world. British policing is governed by the philosophy of “policing by consent,” which recognizes that “the power of the police to fulfill their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behavior and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.”
This is not to say that CPSO should follow the exact same protocols as London police—it is simply to point out that there are alternatives to the use of deadly force, even in highly-populated metropolitan areas. CPSO should take a cue from the UK and learn to govern by the consent of the community or risk losing the trust of the public altogether.