by Sarah Mirk
While Portland is wrangling with issues of police accountability, the university in the center of the city is dealing with police issues of its own. Portland State University has 29,703 students and only 17 security officers. This week, campus Director of Public Safety Phil Zerzan met with students to propose a big new idea: Forming a sworn police force just for PSU.
Like Portland police, the sworn officers would be armed—an issue which makes many students nervous. PSU is unique among its 21 peer urban universities in not having its own police force, using campus security to respond to most incidents and contracting with the Portland Police Bureau to deal with serious crimes. The current draft of the plan would change the university's security team from the current 17 security officers to 10 non-sworn officers, 16 sworn police officers, and three sergeants. The cost of the proposal is unknown.
The big issue pushing the change, says Zerzan, is the problems with how PSU responds to sexual assaults. Reported sexual assaults on campus have jumped in the past three years from two in 2009 to
eight nine in 2011. That's not necessarily a bad thing, since an increase in reports could mean victims now feel more comfortable and encouraged to report assaults. But, Zerzan told students last night, not having sworn police officers on campus makes the process worse for students who do report assaults. Campus security are not legally authorized to investigate sexual assaults, so they have to call the Portland police. If it's not a crime in progress, the call gets a low priority—Zerzan says he's seen victims wait two to three hours for an officer to come take their statement and get the investigation rolling.
"To me, it's an embarassment that in 2012 we're conducting sexual assault investigations in this manner," says Zerzan. "This was the first thing that jumped out at me when I took this job, it was like a time machine stepping back into the seventies."
"I have people coming into my office every day saying they feel unsafe," said Dean of Student Life Michele Toppe, noting that the campus's permeable boundaries and location in downtown can make it a target for people looking to rip off or hurt students. "I've waited a really long time for police to show up when I needed them." Campus security can make arrests and search people with probable cause, but they cannot place people in mental health holds, write search warrants, or enter rooms that aren't university owned.
If the administration goes for the plan—which is not yet a hard and fast proposal—the school could set its own oversight, use of force policies, and advanced training procedures for its police team. Though students are worried about officers carrying weapons, Zerzan noted that the university-specific officers involved in UC Davis's Occupy pepper spraying were fired. "Ask yourself if you'd have the same response from the municipal authority that we currently contract with to provide safety," Zerzan told students last night.
PSU students have a mixed opinion on the idea. Many are worried about how the specifics of how police oversight and training will actually pan out. During discussion of student oversight of the police, one student piped up, "Get it in writing." Others noted that adding cops to campus won't end rape. Instead of spending money on beefing up the police force, the school could spend money on expanding prevention programs, escorts for students, and trainings about consent.
"The big problem is not lack of police officers, but rape culture. What we need to support is making women feel safe," said Sarah Levy, a member of PSU's international socialist organization. "We shouldn't assume policing is the answer."