The fatal shooting of a man by Portland State University police officers has renewed calls to disarm campus police.
Two PSU officers shot and killed Jason Erik Washington, 45, after a witness said he tried to break up a fight early Friday on the university’s downtown campus. It was the first officer-involved shooting by university police since PSU’s board of trustees voted to allow armed officers on campus four years ago.
People rallied at Pioneer Courthouse Square on Sunday to demand the disarmament if not outright abolition of PSU police.
As sun bathed the public square, a large group gathered at the back of the crowd after the start of the rally, hoisting signs and wearing T-shirts with Washington’s photo on them.
One of those people was Jason Washington’s older brother, Andre Washington.
“His wife lost a husband,” Andre Washington told the crowd. “His three daughters lost a father. Granddaughter lost a grandfather. Friends lost a friend.
“I graduated from Portland State University, and I’m disgusted.”
That was the collective sentiment at Sunday’s rally. There seemed to be a shared message among students at the rally that campus police are at least unhelpful if not actively dangerous.
Friday’s shooting confirmed fears many students say they’ve expressed for years.
“You’re already on edge whenever you’re in a place of education these days — it’s the site where violence is perpetrated far too often,” said Donald Thompson III, a PSU student. “It was just sort of a sickening confirmation of my insecurity on campus.”
Demonstrators marched from the square down Broadway to the PSU Campus Public Safety Office. Organizers said on Facebook that they did not seek a permit for the march from Portland Police. No visible police presence was at the march.
The rally was organized by the Portland State Student Union, which released a statement decrying the process through which university leaders allowed armed officers.
“The Board of Trustees, [former PSU president] Wim Wiewel and the entire PSU administration tried to tell us that the armament and deputization of [Campus Public Safety Officers] would make our community safer, despite the voices of those they claim to represent,” the statement read. “As we predicted, they were wrong.”
Portland State’s board of trustees tentatively voted in 2014 to approve armed campus police, reinforcing that decision with a second vote in June 2015. The decision came despite vocal opposition from students and staff.
A 2015 study published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows about two-thirds of four-year colleges and universities with more than 2,500 students used armed or sworn police officers in the 2011-12 school year. About 90 percent of public institutions of the same category used armed officers.
The University of Oregon and Oregon Health and Science University use sworn officers on campus. Oregon State University contracts with Oregon State Police to provide campus law enforcement services.
“Every other time [PSU officials] are having a conversation about PSU, they’ll say that we’re unique, we’re innovative, we’re unlike any other school,” Thompson said. “But when it came to armament, it was about approaching a standard.”
Multiple agencies are investigating Friday’s shooting. The two officers involved, Shawn McKenzie and James Dewey, are on paid administrative leave. PSU President Rahmat Shoureshi, who was not at the downtown Portland school when its leaders voted for an armed police force, has asked the campus public safety chief to conduct an internal assessment and evaluation of the incident.
PSU issued a statement saying it “supports the right of individuals and groups to organize and participate in peaceful protests.” The statement said the university is cooperating with the Portland Police Bureau’s investigation into the incident.
Sunday’s march ended on the steps of the Campus Public Safety Center. Students lamented Jason Washington’s death as a worst case scenario of arming officers come true.
“We told them! We told them! We told them — for six years,” Olivia Pace, a student union organizer, shouted from a megaphone. “I’m ashamed that I go to this school. You all should be too.”