Will CPSO be unarmed by September?

Activists worry guns remain a radio call away

Portland State President Stephen Percy announced in early June that the school’s Campus Public and Safety Office (CPSO) has plans to begin unarmed patrols as of Sept. 1, 2021, but activists in the campus community remain skeptical. 


The recent statement comes after years of pressure from groups like DisarmPSU, the 2018 killing of Jason Washington by armed CPSO officers James Dewey and Shawn McKenzie and previous promises to disarm last year. Pressure mounted with over a year of protests for Black lives, against police killings and focused on racial justice in Portland and the United States. 


As of Sept. 1, 2021, according to CPSO Chief Willie Halliburton, all campus police firearms will be stored under lock and key in CPSO headquarters and would only be released to officers under specific conditions at the discretion of the CPSO Chief. 


“There has to be a major incident on campus for that to happen,” Halliburton said. An Intergovernmental Agreement between PSU and Portland Police Bureau provides the potential for additional armed officers to respond. 


“That means that if there has to be an incident on campus where there’s either weapons involved or there’s an uptick in danger or increased danger to an officer who’s unarmed,” Halliburton said. 


The decision to disarm patrol officers was made by the entire CPSO team, including Halliburton, last summer, but CPSO says changes in policy and staffing resulted in the new Sept. 1 date. Several officers who recently left CPSO reportedly cited the climate of protests and negative sentiment towards law enforcement in the city as one reason for their departure, according to Halliburton.


All campus police officers will also now rid themselves of their tactical vests, opting instead for a plain uniform with a Taser, radio and pepper spray attached to an internal vest worn underneath. “Feedback I’ve heard from our citizens out there is that it is less intimidating [because] it doesn’t look militaristic,” Halliburton said.

Corrinne Gould, who works for the PSU School of Business and is affiliated with the advocacy organization DisarmPSU, is not convinced by the newest round of public assurances from PSU management.


“There was the expectation that CPSO would be patrolling without arms at the start of the [2020] fall term,” Gould said. “In the end of October, students were actually seeing CPSO patrolling with firearms and were like, ‘hey–this feels like a violation of the promise that was made.’” 

Gould said DisarmPSU started receiving emails from students last Sept. regarding armed officers, which were eventually followed by PSU’s statement in Oct. that disarming was not yet happening. 


Gould cited other public shows of planned changes like a pricey consulting group’s report and the 2019 Plan for Holistic Public Safety at PSU


This led to the creation of the University Public Safety Oversight Committee at PSU, and to the continued hiring and training of armed campus police, while simultaneously creating language that placed an increased responsibility for campus safety upon students, instead of PSU leadership and law enforcement. 


Even if CPSO does fully disarm its patrols this fall, Gould believes that it’s still not enough to effect real and lasting change. 


“We know that violent encounters with police officers at a national level are disproportionately affecting BIPOC people, LGBTQ people [and] people with disabilities,” said Gould. She highlights DisarmPSU’s demands for accountability from the university, saying that the school needs to show specific actions in order to rebuild trust within the community. 


If patrols do disarm, it will still only take a radio call to CPSO and PPB to bring guns to any given place on campus.


DisarmPSU will hold a march and vigil with Jason Washington’s family on Tuesday, June 29, according to an Instagram post from the group.


PSU President Stephen Percy spoke at length with Portland State Vanguard about “reimagining campus safety.” He began by crediting Halliburton for the “brave stance in deciding to pursue policing without weapons.” A few reasons he gives for the year-long delay in disarming patrols are hiring replacements for officers who retired this year and updating lengthy policies to reflect the new patrol model. 


CPSO is now prioritizing staffing levels that allow for two police officers to be on duty at any given time.


“I think some of our earlier timelines turned out to be too optimistic because of the work we had [left] to do and because of the pandemic,” Percy said. “But we never stopped doing it, working towards fully disarming.”


Percy added that Halliburton has been working without a firearm for some time now.


Percy and Halliburton both stress that this is new territory the university is exploring by moving to unarmed campus police. This may indeed be true, however, some historical context on both PSU and the state of Oregon’s policies regarding armed police on college campuses provides clarity on the subject.


Students, faculty and community members have pressured PSU leadership since the 2015 decision to form an armed campus police force, warning that incidents of perceived racial profiling, harassment and misconduct would only get worse. 


“From the formation of PSU in 1946 until 2015, campus security in all of its various forms did not have firearms,” said Gould, while discussing this recent history on campus. 


In fact, only in 2009 was campus security staff given “stop and frisk authority” and the ability to arrest persons for probable cause by the now-repealed law ORS 352.385. This was then ratcheted up in 2011 when OR Senate Bill 405 provided for state universities to form police forces with “all of the authority and immunity of a municipal police department of this state,” including the use of firearms and the legal doctrine of qualified immunity.


The shift to campus police at PSU did not happen overnight. 


In 2013, then-President Wim Wiewel assembled a task force with the express aim of planning and implementing an armed campus police force. This team then published their findings and sent recommendations to Wiewel. 


By 2015, with the blessing of PSU’s Board of Trustees resolution yet at odds with many on-campus activists, CPSO began patrolling with armed police officers. 


Then, in 2018, CPSO officers shot and killed Jason Washington during an incident outside the Cheerful Tortoise bar on SW College St., igniting an even stronger opposition to armed police on campus.


In 2019, as PSU was in the middle of digesting the report from the consulting group and creating the Holistic Plan for Campus Public Safety, OR Senate Bill 576, aka Kaylee’s Law, was passed. This law rescinded the authority given to campus security officers in 2009, leaving campus police officers as the only agents with search and arrest authority.

Specifically, when Percy and Halliburton say that policing campus with unarmed officers has never been done before, they mean unarmed police officers that work for the governmentwho retain all authority and immunity that come with itnot campus security.


The question over the presence of police officers or security on campus, armed or unarmed, has been debated since PSU armed its security, with politics and reports of violence constantly stirring up sentiment between academia, the administration and policy makers.  


Students, however, have been answering ‘no’ to this question for years, reporting racial profiling of Black and Arab students by CPSO security officers. 


“They’re distracting and aggressive,” said recent PSU graduate and former Vanguard photo editor Annie Schutz, who is Black. “I’ve been stopped, followed and bugged by them since the day I transferred. I’ve seen them constantly messing with other people too, homeless especially.”


One new development over the past year has been the formation of the Reimagined Campus Safety Committee (RCSC), which is the most recent assembly tasked with addressing how PSU treats campus safety. “[President Percy] did not come to us and dictate what that outcome should look like,” said RCSC steering committee member Jose Coll, who is also Dean of the PSU School of Social Work. 


“[This] has allowed us as a committee to be brave and constructively think about multiple models of campus safety,” said Coll. 


Maintaining transparency and regaining the trust of the community, both on and off campus, is a primary goal of the assembly, according to Coll. The RCSC states that it aims to work within task groups over the next year to create a whole-system recommendation to Percy, who states he puts enormous trust in the RCSC’s work. 

The RCSC’s remit has no bearing on the upcoming Sept. 1 disarm date, according to Coll, and Percy appears optimistic that these changes will usher in an era of a safer and more accountable campus security force.


If asked by Percy, Halliburton or the RCSC, Schutz said she would recommend “completely defunding CPSO. We don’t need it—they don’t do anything. Redistribute the funds. The Black Studies department is continually at risk of shutting down because of how little support it gets from the school.”


Schutz’s take on the situation is decidedly less positive than that of Halliburton or Percy. “I think they’re full of shit. They’ve had a year to disarm, they told us last year and nothing changed.”