Editor’s note/correction on Tuesday, March 12, 2019: A previous version of this article that was put online and in print incorrectly stated that UOPD officers drew their weapons on a student while searching for a suspect in the EMU. This is factually incorrect.
In May 2018, a miscommunication between officers from the University of Oregon and Eugene Police Departments lead to EPD officers drawing their weapons on a student while searching for a suspect in the EMU. Then, in June of that year, Portland State University campus police shot and killed a man who witnesses said was attempting to de-escalate a fight at a nearby off-campus bar, sparking protest over the use of firearms by university law enforcement.
In the wake of those incidents, Rep. Diego Hernandez (D-Portland) introduced a bill to the Oregon State Legislature on Feb. 28 that aims to disarm campus police at PSU and UO. The bill is supported by the Oregon Student Association, a student advocacy group, and, if passed, would bar campus police from carrying firearms on patrol, although they could still have guns inside police headquarters.
“The bill is about making students at our university campuses safer. The fact of the matter is students at both campuses have said time and time again they do not want armed police on their campus,” Hernandez said in a press release.
ASUO President Maria Gallegos-Chacón and Vice President Imani Dorsey, both of who sit on the OSA board, said that having armed police contributes to a larger issue of mistrust and fear of the police, especially in marginalized communities.
“It may seem on the surface that a lot of folks don’t mind police,” Gallegos-Chacón said, “but for students of color, LGBTQ, disabled, houseless students — they don’t see campus police as a safety guard.”
Gallegos-Chacón said opposition to campus police firearms at UO has existed since UOPD obtained arms in 2013, but there has been new focus since the incidents on campus and at PSU, and after UO alumnus Charlie Landeros was shot and killed by Eugene police in February. Separate coalitions of students from both campuses, Disarm UOPD at the UO and Disarm PSU at PSU, have been driving the effort.
“This started with students proposing it to OSA staff, and we decided that we wanted to do it,” Dorsey said. After the OSA legislative council drafted the legislation, members reached out to lawmakers who could champion it, before Hernandez picked up the bill.
“It's a really big deal this is being introduced because, while this isn't a new issue, we haven't seen a campus disarm in the nation,” said Gallegos-Chacón. “It's a really big deal that so many people want this, including a legislator.”
UOPD Chief Matthew Carmichael does not agree with the proposed legislation. “I respect what students’ opinions are in this community,” said Carmichael, “but as far as this bill goes, it’s not something I can support because I know that’s not the best way to keep my campus safe.”
Because UOPD is a state-certified police force, Carmichael said it is necessary for officers to be armed, in contrast to unarmed security forces at other universities.
“To be a police officer and to be effective, there need to be arms,” Carmichael said. “Having officers in the field, they encounter all kinds of situations, and the goal is to respond as quickly and effectively as possible.”
Carmichael explained that focusing on firearms also ignores many of UOPD's unique and progressive aspects.
“We’re not fixated on guns. We’re fixated on safety,” Carmichael said. He highlighted UOPD's collaboration with students, non-penal approaches to opioid addiction, increased transparency with enforcement statistics and cited work to focus on de-escalation before lethal force.
“There’s so much more to the campus policing here at UO than firearms,” Carmichael said. “While we do make mistakes, the community should be there to call us out, and what’s exciting for me is when community members come in and make a difference in their own safety.”
If passed, the legislation would take effect on Jan. 1, 2020. In the meantime, a public safety review at PSU recommended on Feb. 22 that campus police and public safety officers retain their arms. While activists at UO expect an uphill battle, they are not yet discouraged.
“I’m glad the conversation is starting on our campus,” said ASUO VP Dorsey, “and the fact the coalition exists is a big step in working towards disarmament.”