The long and complicated history of police brutality in the United States has recently come to the forefront with the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, sparking a national movement against racial injustice and police misconduct. The demonstrations have had a worldwide ripple effect, with protests occurring in London, Seoul, Rio de Janeiro, as well as right here in Corvallis.
Protests and global outcry have resulted in various forms of action, with many calling to defund police and disarm officers. A group of Oregon State University students from the OSU Young Democratic Socialists of America club, combined with a few other campus organizers, have begun their own campaign petition, Disarm OSU.
The group calls for the University to “immediately disarm and defund its police force, re-direct funding to services that meet the needs of this community,” and employ “only the bare minimum guard force for the TRIGA nuclear reactor.”
The foundation of Disarm OSU is actually not new – the petition is part of a larger campaign, We Can Do the Work, and began as a decision to fight against police forces on campus after Portland State University student Jason Washington was killed by PSU campus police in 2018.
We Can Do the Work embodies a larger overall goal, including “disarming and limiting public safety personnel on campus, mandating anti-racism education for all students, explicit transparency around any university plans surrounding public safety, accountability for racial aggression via removing racist building names and strengthening the bias response team, and expanding faculty diversity and retention.”
OSU’s recent history with an on-campus police force has been shaky. Last fall, after an encounter of excessive force used by an officer against a Black student for riding their bike on the wrong side of the street, Oregon State University and Oregon State Police law enforcement cut ties with plans to terminate policing services in June. OSU has since announced that these services will actually continue until the end of the year, and that a new police force, created by Oregon State University, will be implemented.
Student, School Concerns
Group members from Disarm OSU, in response to this history and future plans, said, “We are angered and dissatisfied to see OSU extend its contract with the force responsible [for the excessive force] until the end of the year and maintain intentions of implementing a new private force in the coming year.”
Vice president of university relations at OSU, Steve Clark, defended Oregon State and its reasons for creating a new police force on campus: “We are a campus of more than 24,000 students and more than 5,000 to 7,000 employees, so this is a city in a city. Therein lies an important community that deserves public safety in many forms. There are aspects of safety in America that we are all mindful of that should be appropriately provided, such as response to criminal activity including sexual assault, burglaries, robberies, and motor vehicle accidents, which require training and immediate attention.”
Clark also mentioned the necessity for law enforcement given the school’s nuclear reactor, which is required to be guarded by federal law.
The group acknowledges that the school has a requirement to provide armed forces around OSU’s nuclear reactor center, but they worry that the university will employ too many armed guards for the job, which they assert would be unnecessary considering federal regulations.
Clark stated that as many as 14 to 15 armed officers will be employed on the Corvallis campus. He also asserted that these armed officers are necessary for extreme cases as well, particularly in active shooter situations, which have occurred not far from Corvallis in the past, at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg in 2015, which was the deadliest mass shooting to occur in Oregon’s modern history, and the Thurston High School 1998 shooting in Springfield, which left two dead and 25 wounded.
Disarm OSU maintains, as was decided in the case of the Parkland massacre, that armed officers are not legally required to defend students in active shooter situations. The group also holds that armed officers are not necessary in responding to sexual assault reports, and that victims of sexual assault often feel unsafe going to police in such cases.
Disarm OSU is also concerned about OSU’s transparency. “Currently, finding information about their proposed campus police is nearly impossible,” they said, claiming that answers to questions about campus police in livestreams hosted by the university have been vague. The group also referenced an initial announcement about a new police force was “slipped” into an email about tuition freezes, three private interviews were held for a sergeant position, and that their emails and attempts at contact about their concerns have been ignored by OSU.
In a recent OSU Zoom conference, new interim police chief for OSU’s private force Edgar Rodriguez, addressed a few related concerns. He stated that both armed and unarmed officers will be wearing body cameras, “training will be above and beyond state requirements,” any concerning use-of-force incidents will be investigated, and that any officers with questionable backgrounds (history of complaints or discipline) will not be hired by the university.
Police Reform and Other Services
When asked about concerns over the new police force, Clark stated, “Most importantly, whatever licensed law enforcement looks like at Oregon State in the future, it will be in a university environment, an educational environment, where we will emphasize public safety first, education and de-escalation, and sensitivity to a very diverse community.”
Clark also said that OSU is in support of the emphasis on police reform that occurred in the recent special legislative session.
“That’s our intention at OSU,” he said, “to provide for appropriate public safety, which should include licensed law enforcement, and to assure that that public safety includes many other things: we have the counseling department, the Survivor Advocacy Resource Center, the Office of Equal Opportunity Access, our student cultural resource centers.”
When questioned about calls to disarm and defund campus police, Clark said, “When we hear that public safety and law enforcement should be reformed in Oregon and America, we would say yes. And should it be disarmed? At least in how we conduct ourselves in this society today, no, we should not disarm police, we should change how law enforcement is provided, and that’s exactly what we’re doing by providing our own law enforcement.”
However, Disarm OSU asserted, “There are lots of good arguments for why there should still be some form of defense on campus, but what the school is proposing right now is beyond what is necessary and it’s funneling funds away from more essential services, as well as putting underrepresented, vulnerable communities on campus at risk of police violence. We need to really ask ourselves, with the campus pharmacy shutting down, with OSU cutting wages to faculty and professional staff, limiting student employment opportunities, and still asking for full tuition, is it absolutely necessary… the cost of weapons maintenance, the cost of oversight for an armed guard, and the cost of accrediting agencies to protect the armed guards from lawsuits in the case that excessive force inevitably occurs?”
The group is calling for OSU to transfer armed police funds to other services and resources they believe to be more necessary. They would like to see the following actions implemented: the creation of a mandatory anti-racism course for all OSU students; the hiring of Black counselors in community health and safety departments, such as Counseling and Psychological Services and the Human Services Resource Center, among others; the construction of an unarmed crisis and mediation team; and the production of a Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) student, faculty, and community member committee being implemented, tasked with developing a plan to fully defund campus police and reallocate funds.
The Coalition of Graduate Employees at Oregon State is in support of Disarm OSU, and are also concerned that OSU’s new police force will have a negative effect on the campus’ environment.
“Data-driven research has repeatedly rejected the notion that police, armed with guns, reduce or remove violence from educational environments. Every piece of literature and personal testimony our union leadership comes across tells us otherwise. Armed police presence creates a culture of fear and incredibly realistic chances of violence or death.
“We do understand that there are legal requirements for an armed guard and response capabilities per Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulations. However, the law makes no explicit or implicit requirement for a college campus to create a police force or extend an armed police presence throughout the campus community. That is OSU’s decision.
“In solidarity with Black Lives Matter and the Defund the Police movements, members of the executive team as individuals offer our support to the Disarm OSU initiative.”
Disarm OSU addresses, “OSU students – ask yourself what you are paying for and whether it is actually the right solution for your safety on campus. We urge you to envision a world in which instead of enforcing public safety via punishment and violence, we divest funding into resources that will address the root causes of crime in the first place. Through mutual aid, rehabilitation, education, and community-strengthening, we have the potential to achieve justice and healing.”
The Disarm OSU petition currently has 533 signatures of their goal of 800. Another related petition created under We Can Do the Work for a mandatory anti-racism course at OSU has 2,737 signatures of the desired 5,000.
By Cara Nixon