Kayla Washington stood among a crowd of students, faculty and community members at a protest in June on Portland State University’s downtown campus.
Protesters shouted the name of her father, Jason Washington. It was nearly two years since her father was shot and killed by Portland State campus police officers. Kayla Washington remembers crying as everyone chanted his name.
Images of the body camera footage of her father being shot sometimes still flash through her mind, Washington said. When she saw the video of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, she thought of her father.
“How is this happening again?” the 27-year-old said to herself.
Jason Washington’s death, which occurred as he was trying to break up a fight outside the Cheerful Tortoise bar, was a flashpoint on a campus where students have fought for years to take guns away from armed officers who patrol Portland State.
The movement started six years ago and gained new prominence this summer after the death of Floyd. As the protest continued in June near the place Washington died, chants of “Disarm PSU” echoed off the campus buildings.
But for all of the momentum, the calls to disarm police have been met with many hurdles. Students who started the movement have graduated, the police chief has changed, and a new president has been hired. Five trustees who voted to arm police remain on the board.
University officials have not made any formal moves to disarm the campus police. A spokesperson referred all questions about the movement to Board of Trustees Chair Gregory Hinckley, who provided written answers to The Oregionian/OregonLive about the current stance of the university.
Hinckley said trustees have heard the renewed calls for action, and university officials are soon going to announce details of a “revised safety plan.”
For Kayla Washington and others, the movement will not stop until police are disarmed.
“The time is now,” Kayla Washington said. “What more time do you need? Someone died two years ago. You’ve had all the time in the world.”
A change in campus safety
Portland State opened in 1946, and its public safety office was established in 1969. Campus public safety officers had no police powers until 1995, when they became able to arrest people on campus property.
In 2013, then-president Wim Wiewel set up a task force to reexamine the powers of campus officers. Portland State didn’t have a sworn, armed police force at the time. It was an exception among large Oregon universities. Both Oregon State University and University of Oregon had armed police forces.
A report produced by the committee cited the national rise of campus active shooter situations and the growth of the campus as reasons for the evaluation. Another reason was the fact that Portland State is an “urban” campus.
Professor Ben Anderson-Nathe, a faculty mentor who is active in the DisarmPSU movement, said he felt the message that an urban campus requires more safety measures targets specific people, including those who are homeless and live downtown.
“It was hollow and offensive in 2014, and it still is hollow and offensive,” he said.
Wiewel’s task force ultimately came to the conclusion that started the Disarm PSU movement:
“The task force believes the most ideal campus safety staffing model is one that allows PSU access to dedicated professionals, who are part of the PSU ethos and community, who have sworn police officer status.”
After campus committees and public hearings, the armed police force came up for a vote in December 2014, when the board of trustees voted to create an armed police unit. Final approval happened in June 2015. Armed officers started patrolling July 1, 2015.
The campus safety office says on its website that guns allow officers to respond with force “appropriate to the threat.”
“Tasers or mace are ineffective in a dire situation involving an active shooter,” the office said.
A new push
The movement to disarm Portland State officers was birthed by the hard work of a few students and has evolved over time, said Anderson-Nathe, who has worked at Portland State since 2004.
Portland State Student Union leaders organized to fight the issue as soon as it surfaced. In fall 2015, members of the student union’s activism work interrupted the freshman convocation in protest of the newly armed officers.
That was when Kaitlyn Dey, a freshman at the time, learned about and joined the cause. The group gained a lot of traction during the following year, said Oliva Pace, a long time Disarm PSU organizer.
The student union teamed up with other local groups, including Black Lives Matter, to shut down multiple board of trustee meetings in early 2016. That May brought a staged walk out. At the time, Pace said it was the biggest action the movement had.
“It’s unacceptable to create reforms like this that affect students so much and include students so little,” Pace said at the event.
Students did meet with administrators, but the students refused to hold closed-door talks, Pace said.
Dey and Pace said the group’s momentum slowed in late 2016, after Donald Trump was elected as president. Protests in Portland brought thousands to the street to show disapproval for his election.
The cyclical nature of academics has also been a hindrance to the Disarm PSU movement, said Miranda Mosier, a professor who has been at Portland State since 2010. Students often graduate out of leadership roles or live away from campus over the summer and holiday breaks.
“Big decisions can be made in the summer without people being there to resist,” she said.
Campus officers remained armed. It’s not clear how often police use force.
Portland State’s Campus Public Safety Office said information about how often officers use of force can only be obtained through a public records request, which The Oregonian/OregonLive has filed.
A campus police shooting
Through the years of protest and work, the message of Disarm PSU stayed the same: “Disarm before people get hurt.”
What those against arming had feared happened June 29, 2018. Jason Washington, a Black father and veteran, was shot and killed by officers.
Officers James Dewey and Shawn McKenzie ordered Washington to drop his weapon during a fight outside the Cheerful Tortoise, a bar at Southwest Sixth Avenue and College Street. The gun was a friend’s that Washington had confiscated earlier after a night of drinking, according to police reports.
Police footage shows a pistol holstered to Washington’s hip before he fell and the gun in his hand as he gets back on his feet. Officers told him to drop the firearm. Seconds later, Washington appears to walk away from the officers as they continue to yell. Dewey warned they would shoot him, and then both officers fired shots, the police footage shows.
Washington was hit nine times by bullets and was pronounced dead once medics arrived.
Dey said she wondered if students hadn’t done enough.
“When any Black or Brown person is murdered by the police, that sits heavy in the community that is affected by it,” Pace said. “It’s impossible to explain how heavy that felt to the people who had been organizing around these issues at PSU.”
Student organizers reconvened quickly and held a protest and vigil two days after his death — the same day that three years prior armed officers were sworn in.
Several relatives of Washington attended. Kayla Washington said the family attended every protest Disarm PSU organized to support her father and to make sure people remember he was a real person, who left behind a real and loyal family.
The student group settled on three demands: Permanently disarm campus, fire the two officers who killed Washington and establish a permanent memorial.
A grand jury decided in early September 2018 not to indict the two officers, both of whom returned to work. They have both left since then. Portland State hired a consulting firm to review safety policies.
Days after the grand jury reached its decision, the student group occupied the space in front of the campus public safety office for 10 days.
But momentum slowed once again as an internal investigation happened and people awaited its findings. The firm brought in to review the situation, Margolis Healy, held forums and spoke with the PSU community while completing a report and recommendations, the report says.
Those recommendations included increasing oversight of use of force incidents and improving access to and communication between the committee and the campus public safety office.
President Stephen Percy released a campus public safety plan in October based on the recommendations. The university pledged to increase training for officers, including about deescalation tactics, and hired four more unarmed officers, citing the recommendations in the report.
The hiring of more officers angered student leaders and remains a point of contention. The new officers brought the total number of officers on campus to ten armed and ten unarmed.
The university also pledged changes in response to a settlement with Washington’s family after they threatened to sue. They ultimately received $1 million in December 2019. Jason Washington’s widow, Michelle Washington, said at the time the settlement acknowledged their loss, but did not fix the pain.
“Our goal is that these changes will bring about awareness to help prevent this type of tragedy from ever occurring again,” she said in a statement then released by the university. “We pray that no family will ever endure the pain and suffering of losing someone as irreplaceable as Jason.”
After the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd sparked worldwide protests in late May, the movement to remove guns from the Portland State police force gained new attention. Chants of “Disarm PSU” and “Jason Washington” often arise at nightly protests downtown.
Kayla Washington said protests feel different now than in 2018. She said then, more people tried to blame her father for the police officer’s use of force.
“I felt like they were trying to make him the bad guy,” Kayla Washington said. “Now with the movement and Black lives matter, everyone is more supportive.”
A vigil marking two years since Washington was killed brought hundreds of people to a makeshift tree memorial. People wrote notes and stapled them to the tree.
That day, Percy announced the campus would commission an art piece as a permanent campus memorial to Washington, a small victory for the group’s demands.
“Our path to healing, learning and changing will include significant work at PSU, including considering our approaches to campus safety and taking a bold look at the ways systemic racism and anti-Blackness show up on our campus,” Percy said in an email.
But the larger, namesake demand of Disarm PSU remains unmet.
“There is a window open right now that hasn’t been open,” Anderson-Nathe said. “The board of trustees and the president have the opportunity to be bold.”
A June trustees meeting brought waves of comments, but no formal move toward change.
“Members of the PSU Board of Trustees have been moved by the protests and the calls for an end to racism along with thousands of others across Oregon,” Hinckley said in his written statement provided by the university.
He said many of the powerful comments heard during the meeting echoed comments they’ve received from others as well.
Portland State’s new chief of police, Willie Halliburton, who was promoted into position June 1, told The Oregonian/OregonLive in June that he supports keeping the university’s police force armed. He said he’s open to hearing students’ concerns.
Both Hinckley and a university spokesman said officials are working to revise a campus safety plan and will announce those changes soon. They did not provide specific details.
“We fully understand the controversy that surrounds it and that “safety” is a word that means different things to different people,” Hinckley said. “We are committed along with President Percy, Chief Halliburton and other university leaders to develop an approach that protects students, faculty, staff and visitors in ways that they feel safe at PSU.”
Pace and Dey, who have since graduated, have been staying involved in Disarm PSU try to further the cause and spark action.
Dey joined a community activist group, Care Not Cops. The cause has gained prominence off campus, and she said community groups are offering more suppor. Yet, she said, administrators have historically moved slowly in response to calls for change.
“It always seemed like the board of trustees was just waiting for that energy to fizzle out to make significant decisions,” Dey said.
Hinckley said the issue is complicated and cannot be made with “snap” decisions.
Kayla Washington now works with an organization called PDX Black Excellence, which has launched an online petition for Portland State’s disarmament.
“We’re going to keep pushing, and we’ll be involved with Disarm PSU and any protests that will be happening,” Washington said.
— Alex Hardgrave
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