On a fall night some 15 years ago, Pete Deshpande parked his patrol car near campus and stepped out, armed at the hip, yet stalked by fear.
One block away at 17th and Hilyard Street, a hundred rioters awaited police in the streets. They had overrun the intersection and as officers approached had begun hurling rocks.
A loud speaker blared a warning — to no avail — and the first round of tear gas lobbed into the crowd. Amid rising fumes, rioters reached to throw them back.
“I remember not wanting to go there,” Deshpande recalled of the night, just one in an eventful 22-year career with the Eugene Police Department. “Dropping aside my ego… there were many times as an officer when there was an element of fear.”
And without a gun, that anxiety is even higher. That is the consensus at the University of Oregon Police Department, where Desphande is now a captain. Propelled by concerns over safety and aided by a growing budget, the department is taking steps to obtain firearms for the first time in UO history.
Despite decade-low crime rates and not a single weapons-related incident reported since 2007, UOPD plans to approach the campus community and state officials in the coming weeks with a simple request: the right to carry guns.
UOPD has scheduled three public meetings to take place throughout the rest of this term on the issue of guns: on Monday, Feb. 11 from 6-7:30 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 26 from 4:30-6 p.m. and Wednesday, March 6 from 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m.
Yet while officials say they want feedback, it is clear from the onset that the debate will come down to state board — not public — approval.
“I don’t want people to think it’s going to unfold like a voter popularity contest,” UOPD spokesman Kelly McIver said. “The interest is in having a true discussion. But I don’t think things are working on a consensus model where everybody has to be happy with the decision.”
The discussion over firearms is the last significant hurdle for UOPD, which until last fall was known as the Department of Public Safety, in becoming a full-fledged police force.
Efforts really began in 2010, when officials approached state legislators with an idea for a bill, one that would allow police departments to exist on public universities. The idea garnered support by portraying UO and Oregon State University as the only Pac-10 schools without an armed force.
A bill was signed into law in June 2011, after which DPS immediately sought approval to become a police department. The state granted the request in October and offered access to training programs, but denied the right to firearms.
Since then, UOPD has invested in new uniforms, new equipment and three new leaders, all from EPD. Captain Deshpande, former captain Chuck Tilby and former sergeant Lee Thoming are now overseeing the transition, together earning $240,000 a year, according to UO documents.
In addition, UOPD plans to hire six more officers over the next several months, with hopes of having a force of 25 armed officers in four years’ time. Officials say they are already prioritizing candidates who have been trained to wield firearms.
Despite the planning, the debate over firearms is still far from over. Following the series of public meetings this term, UOPD must appeal to the Oregon State Board of Higher Education and justify the need for guns on campus. Officials say they intend to make that presentation this spring.
Yet crime data for the UO aggregated by the U.S. Department of Education reveals a far safer campus now than in the past. Crime rates from the last four years pale in comparison to the first half of the decade, with significant drops in burglary, robbery and aggravated assault. Between 2002 and 2007, 38 people per 10,000 students were victims of crime; between 2008 and 2011, that number was cut down to 19.
Even more surprising is the steady drop in alcohol and drug citations. 2011 saw the lowest number of alcohol violations — 998 for the year — since 2001. That is 400 fewer than the tally in 2007, when the UO had 4,000 fewer students. Drug violations have also dropped substantially, with the 217 cases in 2011 being less than half the 564 reported in 2007.
While the UO remains among the top 10 in the country for these citations among large public universities, the last four years have borne much less work for UOPD, begging the question of whether more officers — or more lethal weapons — are truly necessary.
Officials maintain that without firearms, the agency is limited in the ways it can serve. Unarmed UOPD officers must rely on EPD to transport anyone to a municipal or county jail. Officers are discouraged from venturing far off campus, and the department cannot conduct investigations into cases of physical and sexual assault — the most consistent problem at the UO, with at least six reported cases in each of the last four years.
“This is about having a department that is prioritizing its services to meet the campus’s culture and needs,” said Carolyn McDermed, UOPD interim chief and EPD veteran. “There have always been armed police officers here — EPD responds here — but this would mean the officers are accountable to the university.”
UO and OSU remain the only Pac-12 schools without university police, though OSU has a force of 10 state troopers stationed near campus and the UO has traditionally enjoyed EPD assistance. The schools have two of the lowest student populations and reside in two of the smallest college cities.
At the same time, Oregon law enforcement is deeply understaffed by national comparisons. In 2010, the average number of city police per 10,000 people was nearly 22 officers. In Oregon, that number was 14; in Eugene, just 12.
Low staff numbers affect the campus community, UOPD officials say. The department is eager to increase their responsibilities in dealing with crime beyond the reach of EPD.
“For certain types of calls, officers do have a sense of exposure. And there are certain types of calls that we can’t go to right now,” Deshpande said. “We need to have firearms because that is the industry standard. It’s not to deal with students — it’s to protect students.”
Officials say the main purpose of UOPD’s three public forums will be to outline the need for firearms but will also be a chance for the community to express any concerns. Students and faculty are encouraged to attend.
“There is a lot of opportunity here for crime; we’re inviting,” said McDermed, who will be attending the meetings. “When officers encounter someone and see suspicious activity, they’re in the moment — they need to be equipped with the tools necessary to do the job.”