After news that Portland State University would be reverting back to more armed security officer patrols on campus, PSU community members continue to have concerns. The person responsible for the change in policy said it’s necessary to maintain safety on the downtown campus.
“Three years ago I promised this community that we would be patrolling unarmed. We have done that. We have created policies to do so in a safe manner,” Willie Halliburton, chief of PSU’s campus safety office, said in a statement Tuesday.
But those policies changed roughly two months ago in response to what university officials describe as increased incidents of weapons appearing on campus.
“This has made me make the hard decision to have more armed patrols on campus,” Halliburton said.
Although PSU announced the shift to unarmed patrols by the fall of 2021, campus security officers were not working on campus without firearms 100% of the time.
PSU’s director of strategic communications, Christina Williams, told OPB that some armed patrols had been taking place under the unarmed patrols policy, but they had to be approved in advance by either Halliburton or another senior officer.
The difference now is that campus officers can carry firearms at their own discretion, rather than waiting on that decision from leadership.
Although that policy change happened in February, many students, staff and faculty were not made aware of it until Tuesday, when PSU President Stephen Percy sent out a campus-wide message.
Williams said Halliburton made the initial decision to change the policy. She said Percy and the university’s Public Safety Oversight Committee were informed before the announcement this week, but she didn’t say when Halliburton told them.
Emily Ford, president of PSU’s faculty union, said in a statement that the delay in telling campus community members about the policy change is “just the latest in a series of failures by this administration.”
Ford called it “utterly unacceptable” to make the decision without input from students, staff or faculty.
PSU’s board of trustees approved arming officers in 2014 over the objections of many university students and staff. The debate over armed officers reignited in 2018 when campus officers shot and killed Jason Washington, a Black man who was attempting to break up a fight outside of a bar near campus.
Ford said the faculty union has consistently opposed arming campus safety officers.
In 2014, 70% of union members who responded to a survey indicated they were against arming the officers.
The union is calling on the administration to support community engagement about the issue and fund “de-escalation teams” on campus.
“This is a better approach to handling campus safety issues related to substance use disorder, mental health crises, and houselessness,” Ford said in her statement. “As a university, we are committed by our stated values to serve the city. We enter into community partnerships to solve real-world problems. It’s time to live up to our values.”
Disarm PSU, a group now mostly made up of staff and faculty members, has also been urging the university to disarm its campus officers for about a decade now.
Katie Cagle is a member of that group, as well as a longtime staff member in PSU’s School of Social Work.
Cagle said although the university’s promise of unarmed patrols has never been fully realized, due to the prior ability for patrolling officers to carry guns if approved by a supervisor, Tuesday’s announcement was still a disappointment.
“For me personally, it felt like a punch in the gut even though we knew the policy wasn’t happening,” she said.
Cagle said Disarm PSU’s mission has shifted over the years — from initially pushing back on the board’s decision to allow campus officers to carry firearms, to reminding the campus community of the circumstances that led to Washington’s death, to ensuring administrators keep their promise to move away from armed patrols.
Now, Cagle said, Disarm PSU has mostly been working to inform new students about the history of armed campus officers, as most if not all of the students who were originally involved in the group’s start have graduated.
“I think if you’re a new student coming to PSU at this point, it’s easy to believe like, ‘Oh, these cops have always had guns,’ and to not know that it’s, in the history of the university, a relatively recent change and not something that has to be the reality,” Cagle said.
Cagle said, as did PSU President Percy in his message, that some students, staff and faculty members feel less safe with campus officers carrying firearms, not more.
Cagle also questions the university’s decision to implement this change now. She said as a staff member, she gets messages from the campus public safety office about potential threats on campus — for example, she said she recently got one message about some incidents of indecent exposure near campus.
People have complained about conditions in downtown Portland since 2020, with more people experiencing homelessness and fewer office workers and visitors around. Businesses have said it’s been difficult to stay open, Coava Coffee was the latest Portland business to announce it was moving out of downtown Portland. Its owner blamed nearby violence and criminal activity for its decision to close a coffee shop a few blocks from PSU.
Cagle said she hadn’t seen any messages regarding more instances of weapons on campus, as the university had noted as the reason for more armed patrols.
“I’m curious about what those weapons are, and if they actually require guns,” Cagle said.
Williams with PSU confirmed campus officers have been encountering more people with weapons on campus over the past few years. She said the number of incidents involving people with guns on campus has increased by 180% from 2021 to 2022. She said incidents in 2023 are on pace with 2022.
Williams said alerts are only shared with the campus community if there’s an ongoing threat to campus. If there isn’t an ongoing threat, a notice wouldn’t be sent out to campus, but it would be noted in a daily activity log, available to view at the Campus Public Safety Office.
Cagle said Disarm PSU has not yet had a chance to meet since Tuesday’s announcement, but the coalition is planning on meeting soon.