Opinion: The UOPD’s gross mishandling of the incident at the Student Rec Center in February and the university’s lack of acknowledgment only continue to put student safety and security at risk.
On Feb. 23, Elijah Weber, a convicted sex offender, was witnessed masturbating in the showers of the women’s locker room at the Student Rec Center.
A witness said she had seen Weber and reported him to the staff at the front desk, who then called the police.
UOPD Sergeant Chris Phillips was the first to arrive on the scene, shortly followed by Officer Steven Barrett. They identified Weber and noted that he had no active warrants but was previously convicted of rape in the third degree and public indecency in 2013 and public indecency again in 2015.
Weber was issued a lifetime letter of trespass, prohibiting him from using all university property, and escorted out of the SRC. He was never arrested or charged with a crime.
This incident is the epitome of the UOPD’s skewed priorities and the university’s disregard for student safety and security.
But before I get into these failures, I would like to briefly address Weber’s claim to be transgender. It does not matter. This incident isn’t an issue of gender identity or expression. It doesn’t matter if this took place in a women’s, men’s or gender-neutral locker room. It doesn’t matter if this was committed by a cisgender or transgender person. The only things that matter are that it was wrong and that it is still a crime which violated those who were forced to witness it.
Trans rights, even more so recently, have been under constant attack from right-wing politicians and media. While I acknowledge that it is not my place to tell someone how they identify, to falsely claim to be transgender in a moment like this only further leverages the blocking and removal of trans rights.
Back to the issue at hand, the UOPD had every opportunity to arrest and charge Weber with public and private indecency but refused to do so.
In the police report, Officer Barrett stated that he “had reasonable suspicion for Public Indecency, Private Indecency and Criminal Trespass, but had not developed probable cause,” which, as defined by Oregon Public Law, is “a substantial objective basis for believing that more likely than not an offense has been committed and a person to be arrested has committed it.”
According to Kay Jarvis, senior director of media relations and issues management for the university, this lack of probable cause was due to the fact that the witnesses did not want to press charges.
One of the witnesses said she was hesitant to press charges because “UOPD told me that this person [Weber] would have my full name and address, I would have to see them in court and the whole process would stretch out over a year. I didn’t want it to be that long.”
To press charges and go through the entire legal process is terrifying regardless of the crime, but particularly for a crime such as this. It is entirely valid and respectable for a witness to not want to press charges. But it’s not a witness’ job to bring charges upon a person; it is the job of the state. And it is that job the police failed to do.
“In our criminal justice system, while crimes may have a human victim, the illegal act itself is considered a crime or wrongdoing against society or the public…it is the government’s job to seek justice on behalf of society and victims,” Erika Valcarcel, a criminal defense lawyer, stated on her website.
Similar to instances of domestic violence, if the police arrest a perpetrator because they have established probable cause, the case is then transferred to a prosecutor who begins an investigation. Part of this investigation is speaking with a witness. Even if the witness does not want to cooperate, the prosecutor may press charges anyway, especially if there is an interest in protecting the public or if the perpetrator has a criminal history in which they’ve committed this offense before.
Officer Barrett made the statement that he had developed reasonable suspicion for the aforementioned crimes after having been told by Sgt. Phillips that the witnesses had declined to press charges. This, in combination with Weber’s previous convictions, was sufficient for the police to arrest and charge Weber.
Beyond the UOPD, the university never made the situation known to the campus population and has yet to make any noticeable changes in preventing a similar incident from occurring in the future.
Members of the SRC staff were unaware that this happened at all.
All of this ignorant response set aside, students shouldn’t stop using the SRC or other campus facilities because an incident has happened. Rather, we remind ourselves that we have to look out for one another and call out when harm is being done.
“I didn’t want this person to ruin my happy place. The gym is my happy place and I wasn’t going to let him ruin it,” a witness said.
The UOPD has since returned to the SRC and closed the women’s locker room on March 9 at 7:30 a.m.
In an email from Jarvis, she said “The UOPD visited the Student Rec Center today [March 9] as part of its investigation into the Feb. 23 incident.”