Michael Soto, newly appointed interim chief of Campus Public Safety, is a husky ex-marine who collects Mickey Mouse memorabilia and works actively to promote and preserve Native American culture.
Soto, who has worked in law enforcement all his adult life, took over in mid-September as interim chief upon the departure of John Fowler. Soto will apply for the permanent job, he said, but in the meantime, he continues to press the emphasis on community service instituted by his predecessor.
“Currently, I am maintaining the level of professionalism which started and was communicated to the community by John Fowler,” he said. “I am meeting with the community to see how we can improve in other areas of community policing. How we can strengthen our partnership.”
Soto said he is looking internally to see how he can make the office more professional, with training as his number one goal.
“We have to come up with innovative ideas of how to get the training by exchange of services,” he said.
He has officers who can train others in defense tactics, for example, or in use of the retractable police baton. One of his ideas is to invite trainers to Portland State University rather than fund off-campus training. He believes different academic departments could provide valuable training to his officers. He, himself, has taken courses at the university since 1981.
He also wants to continue to build the office’s community base.
Soto has met with other administration officials from his assigned area, the office of finance and administration, to seek their input as to what their expectations of his office will be.
One of them, unnamed, made what Soto considers a very good point.
“His advice to me was, as an interim chief or director, to do the job like I was the chief or the director,” he said.
Soto’s origin comes from a group of tribes, the Ohlone, who live commune-style in California’s Monterey Bay area. He joined the marines in 1973 and stayed until 1977. Service in the military police included a stint in the Philippines as a sergeant in military police investigation.
When he came home he found Monterey Bay too small for his ambitions. He came to Portland to visit a friend and decided to stay. In 1978, he joined PSU as a security officer in the PSU Bookstore. Over a period of two years, he became the security manager. In December 1979, he applied for an officer’s position; he was appointed in January 1980. He applied for promotion after a year and in 1982 became a sergeant, a position he filled continuously until his appointment as chief.
Asked if he had any hair-raising stories about his career at Portland State, he laughingly said, “Once you’re a marine there are no more hair-raising stories.”
He points to a scar on one cheek and a reconstructed front tooth as evidence. He calls them his “travel medals.”
Soto is known around the campus for his unruffled demeanor.
“For the most part, I find myself cool, calm and collected,” he said. “It takes a lot to get me going.”
Soto enjoys being a part of the PSU campus.
“The experiences are completely different here at Portland State,” he said. “We’ve had everybody from presidents of the United States to presidential candidates to controversial speakers. It’s quite an experience and that’s why I like the environment, because you’re always learning.”
In his 22 years as an officer and sergeant, he has seen the Public Safety Office change from a security force of 17 officers to a public safety office of 13 officers. The old office was primarily a service office, mainly concerned with walking around and monitoring the campus.
“Just being eyes and ears for the local police force,” Soto said of the way the safety office used to work. “Now the Public Safety Office is the local police force.”
Soto saw federal laws implemented in the late ’80s destined to change the character of campus security and law enforcement. Campus officers were able to assume authority and powers similar to a police officer.
“It changed from seeing it and letting somebody know to seeing it and dealing with it,” he said.
Soto’s office bears some unusual decorations. His wall clock has Mickey Mouse’s hands. Mickey’s face appears as a sticker on his filing cabinet. Soto’s wristwatch shows Mickey rolling his eyes. He sports a Mickey tie pin.
He formerly maintained a Mickey Mouse collection on campus from many, many years of gifts but took most of it home when he became director. His passion for Mickey began with a field trip to Disneyland in 1972, his senior year of high school.
“That was probably one of my first times out of the Bay area,” he said. “I fell in love with Disneyland.”
His military police group in the Philippines was also named Mickey Mouse.
When he served in the marines at Camp Pendleton in California for about two and a half years, he went to Disneyland every weekend. Servicemen got free admission and once a month had a dance where they mingled with the Disney characters.
Soto emphasizes his special passion for the preservation and promotion of Native American culture. He is a member of the Native American Cultural Advisory Board. The board functions as a community advisory body. It was appointed by former PSU president Judith Ramaley and was designed to provide a liaison with the Native American community. Soto has been active in organizing the project to build and operate a Native American Center on campus. As he spoke, earth-moving machines were preparing the construction site a block to the south of the Public Safety Office.
Soto also mentors Native American students. He acts as both academic and cultural adviser for the two American Indian student groups on campus, American Indian Students for Engineering and Science, and United Indian Students of Higher Education.
Soto also has a daughter attending PSU.
“I’m trying to get her into the Native American cultures and traditions, so she gets exposed to that,” he said.
For recreation, Soto watches TV to relax but says emphatically that he does not watch cop shows. He gets enough of that on the job.
“I’m enjoying myself at this university. I guess that’s the important part,” he said. “You have to enjoy your job.”