Photo by Max Lorenze

PSU disarms campus officers amid summer reckoning with race

On Aug. 13, Portland State University (PSU) announced that its Campus Public Safety officers will no longer be armed, starting this fall term. 

The decision was made by Campus Public Safety Chief Willie Halliburton amid a summer of protests against systemic racism that began after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, an unarmed Black man. Lewis & Clark President Wim Wiewel was president of PSU when the decision to arm officers was first made. 

“This is a historic event in the world of police work,” Halliburton said in a statement provided to Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB). “I understand it’s going to have its challenges, but it’s the right thing to do for Portland State. We will still protect our campus. We will still provide police services. We will have police officers available. We will have them here, but they will be unarmed.”

PSU students, along with Portland residents,  have been calling for PSU to disarm ever since Campus Public Safety Officer Shawn McKenzie shot and killed Jason Washington in June 2018. Washington, a Black man, had attempted to break up a fight outside of the Cheerful Tortoise bar in downtown Portland when he was killed. A grand jury decided not to bring charges against McKenzie and his colleague, Campus Public Safety Officer James Dewey, claiming that the shooting of Washington was lawful self-defense.

Wiewel has been criticized by LC students and alumni for the role he played in the original decision to arm PSU Campus Public Safety officers. This criticism heightened on social media after Floyd’s death this summer, especially as a campaign to disarm PSU gained traction. LC students submitted a letter to Wiewel at the end of June asking for him to acknowledge his “involvement in the decision to arm the Campus Public Safety Officers at PSU” and how he “will work to make sure students at Lewis & Clark remain safe.”

In early July, Wiewel sent a response letter to those concerned students. He began by directly answering the two points above.

“Let me start by acknowledging that I was involved in that decision, and that Jason Washington being shot and killed by the Portland State University police was horrible and tragic,” Wiewel said. “Furthermore, I state unequivocally that I will never propose or support any effort to arm Lewis & Clark Campus Safety officers.”

Wiewel became president of PSU in 2008 amid debate about how to keep the campus safe. At this time, they chose not to arm officers.

“A Task Force established at PSU following the shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007 had recommended the campus should have a sworn police force itself, or as part of a system-wide police force for all public universities,” Wiewel said. “At PSU, the then-Vice President of Administration opposed it for financial and other reasons, and we did not pursue it. Having grown up in the Netherlands, where gun ownership is almost non-existent, I have always hated guns, and had no interest in arming officers.”

Wiewel went on to say that in 2013, several PSU administrators, including the chief of public safety, told him that they were concerned about increasing crime rates around the university. They were concerned by the slow response time of Portland Police Bureau (PPB) officers in the event of a mass shooting. Because of an Oregon state law that allowed other public universities, like the University of Oregon and Oregon Health and Science University, to create police departments, PSU was motivated to do the same.

“The Vice President and others argued that it would be irresponsible for PSU to be an outlier in the event of an active shooter or other horrific criminal event on campus,” Wiewel said. “Many people also felt that if police were ever necessary to deal with an issue on campus, PSU police officers would be more sensitive to the nature of students and campus life than Portland Police would be.”

After PPB, OHSU Police and Oregon State Police refused to partner with PSU for policing, Wiewel proposed to PSU trustees in Fall 2014 that the university create its own police force. The proposal led to the creation of a special committee and several town halls to receive public comments. Ultimately, in June 2015, the board approved, forming a police force that was trained on “university-oriented policing, cultural competency, unconscious bias, mental health issues and interacting with persons with disabilities.”

Wiewel retired from PSU in the summer of 2017, before Washington’s death. Looking back, Wiewel has different thoughts about his proposal now.

“If I had known then what I know now, both in terms of what happened to Jason Washington and in regard to alternative forms of securing public safety, I don’t believe we would have taken the same approach,” Wiewel said. “It was agonizing at the time, agonizing again after the death of Jason Washington, and all the more agonizing now as our nation struggles anew with issues of policing and race.”

Wiewel closed his letter by describing some of his plans for LC’s future.

“As stated above, I will never propose or support arming our Campus Safety officers,” Wiewel said. “However, the larger issues of safety for Black, Indigenous, and other people of color goes beyond the role of Campus Safety. … We are already changing our student recruitment in order to attract more Black, Latinx and other students of color.”

Along with new recruitment strategies for students of color, LC will be starting new fundraising initiatives to fund financial aid, implementing antiracism training for faculty and students, addressing issues with classroom climate and curriculum and focusing on hiring more faculty and staff of color.

When asked for a reaction to PSU’s decision to disarm its Campus Public Safety officers, Wiewel responded with a statement by email.

“While I generally don’t think it is appropriate for me to comment on current decisions made at PSU, I will say that I very much understand and support their decision to restrict their Public Safety personnel’s ability to carry weapons,” Wiewel said.

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