This piece reflects the views of Michael Hames-García, an ethnic studies professor at the University of Oregon, and not those of Emerald Media Group. The Emerald has lightly edited this piece for grammar and style. Send letters, op-eds or pieces about campus issues or our reporting to email@example.com.
Like many others, I feel less safe, not more, with armed officers on the University of Oregon campus. In recent statements, UO President Michael Schill and Provost Patrick Phillips expressed sympathy with faculty, staff and students of color in response to the recent murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the ongoing protests that have wracked our nation.
As white men, they have acknowledged the inadequacy of their experience to fully understand the daily lives of African Americans. As the white men who run our university, however, they have failed to take concrete steps to address what Oregon Gov. Kate Brown described on Monday as “Years and years of failure to reform police practices, years of failure to hold police officers accountable.”
UO has not always had an armed and sworn police department. The university lobbied the state in 2011 for permission to scrap its Department of Public Safety in favor of a police department with (originally) 26 officers. At the time, students voted overwhelmingly (78%) in favor of an UO student government ballot measure to keep the department rather than transition to a police department. The decision to arm the UOPD was one that originally split the State Board of Higher Education, so the UO lobbied more vigorously for guns on campus.
Since its establishment, the UOPD has been plagued by scandals. In May 2018, officers drew their weapons on a student of color working late at the EMU, ordering him to the ground at gunpoint. They had allegedly been pursuing a suspect described as a “white male” about 6 feet tall; the student working that night was well under 6 feet and was not white.
Previously, the UOPD gained notoriety for rampant unprofessional practices among its rank and file. Former officer James Cleavenger (recently unsuccessful in his bid for Lane County District Attorney) claimed he was retaliated against and fired. He sued the UO as a whistleblower and the university settled for $1 million in 2016. The settlement followed the “retirement” of former police chief Carolyn McDermed and a jury settlement against her and the UOPD.
The Eugene Police Department has also faced its own scandals over the years, including two officers who serially raped at least a dozen women in their patrol cars, according to reporting from The Philadelphia Inquirer. In response to the abuse and corruption, the City of Eugene established a civilian-staffed Police Commission to give input on police procedures, an independent Police Auditor with the authority to receive and investigate complaints, and an independent Civilian Review Board (to which the City Council appointed me last year) to review completed investigations. The Commission and the CRB hold public meetings.
The UO, by contrast, has a closed system. Complaints against the UOPD must be made directly to the UOPD. Investigations are conducted by the UOPD’s Office of Professional Standards. A UOPD Complaint Resolution Committee looks, at first blush, like a Civilian Review Board, but its members are appointed by the President — not elected or appointed by the University Senate or the Associated Students of the UO, the university’s student government.
The UOPD committee is required to include a retired law enforcement officer as a voting member and a current member of the UOPD as a nonvoting member. Its meetings are closed (i.e., secret). This committee is advisory to the UO Vice President for Finance and Administration and therefore has no independent investigatory, decision-making or disciplinary power.
Our university leaders tell us what they — and we — can do about our feelings of outrage, which lie in “education, research, and leadership.” That is not true. University leaders have the power to begin correcting the decades-long momentum in our country toward becoming a police state.
They can institute substantive and independent civilian oversight with investigatory and disciplinary authority.
They can disarm the UOPD.
They can defund the UOPD, destroy its arsenal of semi-automatic “patrol rifles” with high-capacity magazines and reduce its personnel.
They can disband the UOPD, returning to an unarmed Department of Public Safety.
In the meantime, I will support my students in organizing, protesting and defying city curfews to make their anger heard. Like them, I am out of patience.
Michael Hames-García is a professor of Indigenous, Race, and Ethnic Studies at the University of Oregon, where he teaches and researches the criminal justice system. He is also a member of the Civilian Review Board for the City of Eugene.