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Don't rush to disarm campus police

Last year, Portland State University police shot and killed a man who was trying to break up a fight outside a bar. Now a state lawmaker wants to take guns away from some university police officers. His fellow lawmakers should pass. One tragedy doesn’t justify making schools less safe.

Portland Democratic Rep. Diego Hernandez has introduced a bill to forbid university police in cities with more than 150,000 residents from carrying firearms. That’s a roundabout way of saying at the University of Oregon and PSU.

We have no doubt that Hernandez has good intentions. Faculty and students raised concerns about guns on campus, so he is serving those constituents. But, in the words of University of Oregon Police Association President Steven Barrett, his bill is “a drastic, ill-conceived, simplistic fix to a nuanced, complicated, and difficult issue.”

Targeting just urban campuses is counterintuitive. If anything, campus police forces in big cities have greater need to carry guns than their counterparts in smaller communities. Urban campuses are open to the public. Most people who stroll onto campus are benign, but in any city, troublemakers and violent individuals walk the streets, too. When they come onto campus, if an extreme situation arises, police need the right tools to respond.

Campus police also respond to incidents off campus, especially in neighborhoods with high concentrations of students. Eugene’s West University, for example, has seen an unacceptable number of assaults, thefts and other crimes in the past year.

It’s important to note that university police in Oregon are full-blown police officers, not just security officers. They receive the same training as city cops, including in proper weapon handling and crisis response.

That’s not to say there’s no room for change and improvement. In addition to solid training, officers on a diverse campus like the University of Oregon must have sensitivity toward people of color, LGBTQ and others. Police presence — especially armed police presence — impacts people differently.

The Daily Emerald reports that campus police are aware of these sensitivities, and are inviting students and campus community members to be active participants in helping them internalize them so that every officer responds appropriately. That work must continue here and at all Oregon universities.

Campus police also could improve interdepartmental communication with other law enforcement.

For example, Hernandez cited an incident at the University of Oregon last year as justification for his bill. In May, police pointed their guns at a student DJ who had been directed to leave the Erb Memorial Union. Hernandez and many media outlets misreported that those officers were with the campus police. In fact, they were Eugene police there to assist, but they had not gotten clear instruction that the student was coming out. Communication broke down.

That incident is important because it is one of the two that supporters of Hernandez’s bill have misused to support their goal. Without it, they have only the single shooting at PSU. One incident is not sufficient justification to disarm fully trained and equipped police officers who keep Oregon universities safe.

If Hernandez really wants to help, he should take a more nuanced approach focused on training and procedure.