Consultants got a calm but skeptical reception at Portland State University on Tuesday, as they started looking into the armed campus police force.
PSU hired campus safety consultants Margolis Healy to examine security after university police shot and killed a black man named Jason Washington in June.
The fatal shooting led to extensive protests and an 11-day occupation outside the campus security office at the beginning of the school year. Demonstrators have demanded the firing of the two officers who shot Washington, though one of the officers has since left. The demonstrators have also called for disarming all campus security and the creation of a prominent memorial on campus for Washington.
The forum Tuesday was run as an open discussion without microphones or time limits. Every person who spoke directly to the question of whether campus police should be armed said they should not be. But some were skeptical that even if people preferred unarmed security, the university wouldn’t change its policy.
Chair of world languages department Gina Greco referred to a conversation she had with a friend who works for a local police department.
“She said, ‘Well, you know, no one ever goes backwards and takes arms away from safety officers,’” Greco said.
Consultant Steve Healy said his group has been involved in hundreds of safety and security reviews, and many of them have not involved the use of firearms. He said in cases where the question was whether to “move forward” with arming police, or not, it’s been “60–40” in favor of moving forward.
As for going “backward,” Healy said he was aware of jurisdictions giving up weapons a few times, but didn’t say his group was involved in those.
Some people who conceded that administrators might insist on maintaining armed security pressed for better training and alternative de-escalation approaches for situations where armed intervention was not needed or appropriate.
Faculty members said they’ve struggled with how to respond to disruptive students without calling for an armed campus security officer — which, they said, could dangerously escalate a situation.
PSU senior Anastasia Hale voiced a similar concern regarding situations they’ve seen at the downtown campus.
“There was an individual on campus who appeared to be on drugs or didn’t know where they were, or really needed help, but because of the arming of campus public safety officers, I then have to second-guess, ‘Do I want to call these people?’” Hale said.
Consultants heard a lot about racial bias, particularly as it involves campus security.
Urban planning professor Lisa Bates said she’s often questioned as a black woman on campus, and will avoid interactions with certain members of campus security. Bates recalled what she heard from campus officers as she was part of a committee on campus climate.
“The thing I kept hearing was that we need to be very careful and aware about people who quote, ‘have no reason to be here,’ or quote, ‘do not belong here,’” Bates said.
White professors relayed a very different experience. Greco remembered a time she needed security to unlock her office.
“I was told I didn’t have to show my ID,” Greco told the consultants. “I said, ‘No, I want to show you.’”
Another professor told a similar story.
Margolis Healy will be on campus for three weeks, starting with this series of nine “forums” in the downtown conference room typically used for Board of Trustees meetings.
The consultants’ first meeting did not face the kinds of disruptions that PSU trustees have faced as they’ve struggled with how to handle persistent objections to armed police on campus.
Students and faculty questioned what exactly the consultants would look into and how they’d turn comments into advice to administrators.
One person asked the consultants how they would include campus community members who didn’t speak English or were hearing impaired. Healy acknowledged they didn’t have a plan for that, but said his firm was interested in finding ways to include as many perspectives as possible.
A student who said she had been involved in the encampment at the campus security office warned consultants they couldn’t expect busy, low-income students to spend time coming to meetings.
“Well, what have you seen work, or what do you recommend?” asked Christi Hurt, another consultant on hand from Margolis Healy.
The student suggested setting up tables, to literally get in front of students, as they’re moving between classes.
Healy said they’re planning to meet with underrepresented groups over the next two weeks, including a session with staff and faculty members of color.
That was news to Bates.
“I haven’t heard a word about this, as a black faculty member, that there would be a specific attempt to reach out to us,” Bates told the consultants.
Healy and PSU public records officer Clair Pinkerton pledged to provide more information online and put more effort into outreach.
Healy told the gathered students and faculty that they would have a draft report to Portland State administrators in about six weeks. It was his impression that the university would release the report publicly.
Margolis Healy is one of two consulting groups PSU hired in the wake of Washington’s death. The focus of Margolis Healy is on the broader issue of campus safety and policing. PSU also hired the OIR Group, a “nationally recognized independent police oversight and review firm,” to investigate the shooting itself.