Oregon State University officials fielded questions about plans for a new campus police force Thursday on a day when the school’s current law enforcement agency was in the headlines once again for all the wrong reasons.
The Oregon State Police, which has provided law enforcement services on the Corvallis campus since 1989, declared in October that it was ending the contract in the wake of criticism from OSU leadership over the arrest of a Black student who refused to show ID after being stopped for riding her bike on the wrong side of the street.
This spring the university announced plans to form its own armed police force and hired Edgar Rodriguez, the former chief of public safety at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, to lead it. The handoff was supposed to happen on Wednesday, but instead outgoing President Ed Ray announced the university would continue to rely on the Oregon State Police through the end of this year to allow time for additional community engagement.
Some members of the OSU community, including a group called Disarm OSU, had been pushing back on the idea of an armed campus police force in light of calls for police reform and racial justice raised by the Black Lives Matter movement since the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
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On Thursday, instead of taking the reins of a new OSU police force, Chief Rodriguez found himself taking part in a virtual town hall meeting with other university officials to address questions about what law enforcement will and should look like at the university.
During the hourlong Zoom conference, Rodriguez promised to build a responsible, respectful and transparent police department that would foster a safe and caring environment on campus.
He said the department’s 15 or so sworn officers would carry guns and would be assisted by unarmed members of the OSU Department of Public Safety. Both armed and unarmed officers will wear body cameras, he said.
Rodriguez said he would recruit officers who share the university’s values and said their training would include an emphasis on social justice, mental health crisis intervention and de-escalation.
“Training will be above and beyond state requirements,” he said.
He said all complaints and use-of-force incidents will be investigated, and the department will produce annual reports on its law enforcement activities. He also promised to form an oversight committee that will include students, faculty and staff representing a cross-section of the community.
Rodriguez and other university officials responded to a number of questions from town hall participants.
Asked how officers would handle traumatic situations such as sexual assault or a mental health crisis, Rodriguez said they would be trained to respond with sensitivity.
“My No. 1 priority will be the safety of the student, faculty or staff,” he said. “We’ll make sure that they’re safe, provide them with the care they need, then follow up with the investigation.”
Asked if the department would hire officers with a history of complaints or disciplinary actions, Rodriguez said those would be deal-breakers that would be flagged in a pre-employment background investigation.
“If any of those come up, they will not be hired at Oregon State University.”
Asked why OSU needs an armed police force at all, Rodriguez said officers need guns to protect the campus community from violent crime.
“We need to respond appropriately to make sure we are providing the safety and security that our students need,” he said.
“At the high end of that we have the concern of an active shooter,” added Paul Odenthal, the university’s senior associate vice president for finance and administration.
Odenthal also addressed a Wednesday incident involving four state troopers from the OSU command who allegedly flouted Gov. Kate Brown’s latest executive order regarding coronavirus by refusing to wear face masks in an off-campus coffee shop.
“OSP told us about it (and said) it was not behavior the leadership of OSU expects from their troopers,” Odenthal said.
One of the troopers, who reportedly questioned the governor’s authority to require face coverings, has been placed on leave while the incident is under investigation.
Vice President Charlene Alexander, the university’s chief diversity officer, said both Rodriguez and new OSU President F. King Alexander are committed to ensuring that the campus police force reflects the university’s values.
“It will be based on accountability, it will be based on a level of control we did not have prior with the Oregon State Police, and I think those things are important,” she said.
“I am confident we are heading in the right direction, and we have the leadership in place to get us there.”
Additional community outreach sessions are planned over the course of this month to help design the university’s new police force.