Never been fired: What has become of the UOPD’s guns?

Officer Adam Lillengreen remembers a time he felt unprepared, and it could have cost him.

It was 2010, tucked away in a dark corner of a parking lot off of Kinsrow Avenue in Eugene. Lillengreen was a gunless public safety officer for the University of Oregon’s Campus Safety Department — now known as the University Oregon Police Department. 

Around 2 or 3 a.m., he noticed a shadowy figure who appeared to be smoking out of a pipe. Lillengreen drove his car closer and noticed the man begin to walk away.

He got out of his car and pursued the subject on foot. He was a couple of feet away, flashlight in hand, when he realized it wasn’t pot paraphernalia the subject was holding. 

It was a handgun. The subject was suicidal. 

After some struggle, Lillengreen was able to cuff the man and wait until the Eugene Police Department could arrive for backup. Neither the Lillengreen nor the subject were harmed. But for the UOPD, it’s the “what ifs” that count.

In June 2013, the Oregon State Board of Higher Education granted the UOPD’s request for an armed police force. By October 2013, police officers had guns on their belts during patrol.

The purchase of 26 handguns by UOPD wasn’t an isolated incident. It was another stepping stone in a plan to bulk up security at the UO. Just a few years ago, the UOPD was a campus security department staffed mostly by public safety officers who acted as de facto police officers but without a lot of the same powers.

That changed in 2011 when Oregon Senate Bill 405 granted universities the right to establish campus police departments.

But instead of granting firearm authorization to the UOPD, the State’s Board of Higher Education asked that the UOPD make its case for an armed police force — which included gathering feedback on campus about the possibility of an armed UOPD and putting the PSOs through training to become police officers.

“It was an unusual situation that resulted in the UO creating a police department without the ability to arm its police officers,” said UOPD Public Information Officer Kelly McIver in an email.

According to a report released by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2012, 91 percent of public universities with a campus police presence have armed officers. Looking at total numbers across the nation, public and private institutions combined, 75 percent of college campuses have armed police forces.

“On most days, the University of Oregon would, as a standalone entity, rank as the 18th largest city in Oregon…The UO’s 295-acre campus boasts almost 5,000 residents and attracts more than 30,000 students, employees and visitors each day,” wrote UOPD Police Chief Carolyn McDermed in a 2013 recommendation for arming UOPD staff.

Though UOPD officers haven’t had to fire a gun yet while on duty, most proponents of the UOPD’s armed police force, like McDermed, argued that “industry standard tools” would provide a safer working environment for officers and offer a quick response to campus distress. During the UOPD’s campaign to get its officers armed, several police departments around the state, including the EPD and Springfield Police Department, confirmed that access to arms would be vital to campus safety.

The primary goal of arming UOPD’s sworn police officers was to improve the quality and quantity of police response on campus. In McDermed’s recommendation to the university administration, she cited mass-shootings at universities like Virginia Tech in 2007 as a hypothetical situation in which an armed police force on campus would be able to respond faster than relying on the city.

Before the UOPD was armed, Chief Patrol Officer of the EPD, Sam Kamkar, said the EPD used to get at least one call per day with a request for backup — which could take anywhere between two minutes to two hours, said UOPD officer Jared Davis.

In her recommendation, McDermed cited a time in May 2013, when “several 911 calls reported a man repeatedly shooting off a gun inside a UO-owned house. Unarmed UOPD officers responded quickly, and waited at a safe distance for Eugene police officers to respond some time later.”

Today, the UOPD sometimes assists EPD when incidents occur near campus, and the relationship between the two departments could come full circle with another contract to allow UOPD jurisdiction to extend to West University, but no concrete plans have been made.

In the meantime, the UOPD is planning on phasing out its PSO program.  Currently, the UOPD has five police officers on duty, with several others on the way who are either going through the state’s police academy or undergoing field training with the EPD. Only three public safety officers remain with the department. The Emerald previously reported in September 2013 that this armed police force would cost the UO an extra $100,000 per year. This additional cost does not affect tuition.

Since the UOPD’s transition, Officer Lillengreen went through additional training and became a police officer with the UOPD in January 2014.

“As a PSO, I was going out and stopping people who had warrants for their arrests, or sex offenders that were not compliant with sex offense registry,” Lillengreen said. “We were always doing law enforcement activities — but now we’ve been fully trained for them.”

A previous version of this article mistakenly referred to UOPD chief Carolyn McDermed by the first name of Kelly. The Emerald regrets the error.

Follow Dahlia Bazzaz on Twitter @dahliabazzaz

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Dahlia Bazzaz

Dahlia Bazzaz

Dahlia is the 2015-2016 Editor in Chief of the Emerald. Before becoming EIC, she worked as a crime reporter and columnist. She has also interned with Oregon Public Broadcasting.

When she's not in the Emerald newsroom, she enjoys listening to podcasts and figuring out ways to meet Amy Poehler.

You can contact Dahlia via email: [email protected]