Wednesday, January 30, 2013

"Put a gun on it!" – CPSO's absurd appeal to arms

How PSU’s Campus Public Safety Office is trying to spend your tuition money on guns

With all the recent news surrounding school shootings and the legal status of firearms in the United States, writing an opinion piece about gun policy has become a much more serious endeavor. In the past few weeks, virtually every major publication in the country has featured op-eds and articles making the case for their author’s take on second amendment issues. Rest assured, this is not one of those articles.

The question at hand relates to the efficacy of Portland State’s Campus Public Safety Office (CPSO) and whether or not public safety officers ought to be armed. In other words: do we want campus officers to carry firearms as a part of their peacekeeping duties? A policy proposal presented by CPSO aims to make that happen, and while the university hasn’t taken an official stance as of press time, the PSU administration seems quite infatuated with the idea.


If the proposal is put into effect, Portland State would see the emergence of a campus police force to enforce university policies. CPSO officers would be trained at a police academy and granted the same prerogatives as regular police officers, including the use of deadly weapons.

What could possibly go wrong? 

Last October – while the folks at CPSO were probably polishing their proposal – an 18-year-old freshman at the University of South Alabama was shot to death by a public safety officer. His crime: running around in his birthday suit outside the campus police station. In his defense, the officer claimed he felt “threatened” by the cheeky teenager (who was 5’7” and weighed 135 lbs, mind you); but the student could not possibly have been carrying a weapon, seeing as he was fully nude. It’s unclear what the officer was thinking when he drew his weapon, but that’s beside the point: had that gun not been given to him in the first place, that tragedy would have been avoided.

The changes proposed by CPSO also involve a significant cost – $2 million – which essentially doubles the yearly cost of Portland State’s public safety department. Gee, I wonder why CPSO is so eager to make this happen! Naturally, students would be the ones paying for most of that bill.

Speaking to a group of ASPSU senators, CPSO chief Philip Zerzan made the case for the policy change by citing the current inadequacy of the public safety office, which functions with no more than 14 officers. With close to 30,000 students enrolled at PSU, this translates to an officer-student ratio of less than 1-to-2000. As a comparison, the University of Oregon has about 20,000 students and 35 public safety officers, translating to about one officer per 570 students.

The need for more public safety officers at Portland State is not news. In November 2011, a woman was raped by two men on SW 10th and Market Street. Sgt. Pete Simpson, speaking on behalf of the Portland Police Bureau, said the incident was “a crime of opportunity.” Sadly, this is no isolated incident. In the early hours of November 26, a PSU student walking to her dorm was knocked unconscious and sexually assaulted. These preventable misadventures would happen less often if the university hired more public safety officers. The greater the number of officers, the more likely they are to be at the right place, at the right time.

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for Portland State’s campus safety officers to waste their resources in the wrong places, at the wrong times. For instance, on Halloween night – a date notorious for its alcohol-fueled parties – no less than six CPSO officers were lingering in the Broadway Building lobby, waiting for residents to come home and handing out drug and alcohol violations like candy. While these officers were hard at work determining which eyes were red and which eyes weren’t, the rest of campus was deprived of almost half of its public safety.

Whether or not they have a gun matters little in the few instances of criminality that happen on-campus. Aside from the sexual assault incidents mentioned above, Portland State University has a remarkably low rate of violent crime. In September, CPSO released its latest Clery Act and Fire Safety Report, which gathers crime information from local police, public safety, and university official data. According to the document, there have been zero instances of murder, attempted murder, or aggravated assault in 2011. The last time a firearm has been used on PSU premises dates back to 1998, and the weapon’s only victim was a dormitory door.

Arming PSU’s campus safety officers is a $2 million solution to an imaginary problem. To meet the community’s needs in regards to public safety, we need more officers, not more heavily armed ones. With the Portland Police Bureau located six blocks away, CPSO’s proposal for a campus police force embodies nothing short of grotesque redundancy.

Not a single shot has been fired at Portland State University in 14 years. Let’s keep it that way. 

This article was originally published in January 2013 in the Portland Spectator.


  1. i vote for armed officers at psu. it's not a matter of "an imaginary problem", it is protection for the what if, and might i add that the what if also includes small children on campus. you fail to realize that if there was a need for armed security ppd would be called, and ppd says CPSO should handle situations. SO that being said, do we wait around while CPSO and PPD decide who's taking the call, or do we just make sure that CPSO is capable of handling any situation? by saying "not a single shot has been fired at portland state university in 14 years. let's keep it that way" you mean to say the shot would be coming from an officer? for reasons like the ONE you pointed to at the university of alabama? we would also need to be speaking of every single person that steps foot on campus, and hope that they too "keep it that way".

    1. Do we have such a public safety issue at Portland State to justify spending an additional $2 million towards public safety reform? Isn't $2 million in student tuition worth asking ourselves whether or not this reform would be effective? Isn't that worth looking into alternative proposals?

      This issue isn't black or white, there just happens to be one proposal out there: CPSO's. Can CPSO be reformed to make us a bit safer? Sure. I'm all for improving public safety, but it's got to be cost-effective. There is no evidence that arming campus safety officers improves public safety; would you spend $2 million on a car without knowing if it worked?

      There are plenty other sensible reforms one could make to campus safety. Why not increase the number of officers patrolling at night? Why not have officers keep an eye on the Cheerful Tortoise once in a while? Why not use non-lethal weapons instead of firearms?

      I highly suspect that other reforms would not only be cheaper, but also be more effective at promoting the safety of the PSU community.

  2. Who is actually behind this? CPSO?

    Who wrote the policy proposal?

    Who should we contact to complain that this is even being brought up in the first place?

    I won't be back to campus until April, but I can pen a strongly worded letter if I know where to address the envelope.