Debate over body cams on school resource officers caused tension between the school district and police department in Portland, Maine, ending when the police chief and his officers walked out of a school board meeting.
(TNS) — A debate over body cameras on school resource officers caused tension in Portland, Maine, between the school district and police department Tuesday night, ending when the police chief and his officers walked out of a school board meeting as board members made a motion to put the use of body cameras in schools on hold.
“Seeing the chief and his officers walk out leads me to the question of whether they will respect the will of this board,” said school board Chair Roberto Rodriguez. “We have nine elected officials here who represent constituents. We are speaking clearly on what is in the best interest of our students’ safety, specifically their privacy.”
The board voted unanimously to ask the police department to refrain from using body cameras on school resource officers until the district and the department can reach an agreement to replace the current memorandum of understanding.
As the motion was being read around 11 p.m. Tuesday, Police Chief Frank Clark and a handful of officers who had accompanied him to the meeting walked out.
The move followed several hours of debate, during which Clark said he agreed that the department and the district could not go forward with what was being proposed because of a disagreement over who should have custody of the video recordings from the cameras. However, he stressed that he felt the cameras should be used right away.
He suggested the department and the district continue to operate under the current memorandum of understanding and run a pilot program using the cameras.
“It comes down to the importance of the camera and what can we do to make sure we’re not only protecting the privacy of students, but also the officers and making sure they have the same protections as the other 150 in the department are allowed,” Clark said.
Reached by cellphone after the meeting, Clark said he decided to leave before the board’s vote because he knew what the result would be. He said the decision on whether body cameras will be used while a new memorandum of understanding is worked out will be made Wednesday morning.
“It had nothing to do with that,” he said when asked about the board chair’s comments on whether the chief respects the school board.
The board started looking at rules for body cameras on school resource officers last month as part of a larger effort by the Portland Police Department to outfit all of its officers with cameras. The move followed an officer-involved shooting that killed a 22-year-old black man in Portland in 2017.
During the board’s discussion two weeks ago, concerns were raised about ensuring that officers are transparent about when they are recording and about students’ privacy, and who would own the recordings from the cameras.
The district has been working to address those concerns over the last two weeks, but as of Tuesday had not reached an agreement with the police department about who would have custody of the recordings.
That prompted Superintendent Xavier Botana to decide Tuesday afternoon to take the item off the agenda for Tuesday night’s school board meeting. However, the district then announced shortly before the meeting that the item had been re-introduced.
“I followed up with the chief and he could not agree to that and feels the need to implement the cameras immediately,” Botana said. “At that point, I said we absolutely have to have this on the agenda because the board needs to understand that although it is not on the agenda it is already being enforced in our schools.”
Botana said after the meeting Tuesday that Clark would decide Wednesday morning whether the cameras will start being used.
“The board has spoken unanimously and we will find out tomorrow if the police chief will respect the authority of the board to be a partner in that conversation,” he said.
The district has two school resource officers – at Deering and Portland high schools – and pays $130,000 to cover their costs. While the officers have been in schools for decades, the current memorandum of understanding between the department and school district follows a template that dates to around 2015.
It is a one-year agreement that automatically renews at the beginning of each school year.
Botana said Tuesday night that in the past the board was not involved in negotiating the agreement, but he felt it was important to bring the new language on body cameras to the board because of the sensitivity and complexity of the issue.
Language that was looked at Tuesday night included a new stipulation that the body cameras not be operated in “covert” mode.
Other aspects of the proposed rules also differ from the rules for police officers not working in schools.
Rather than having the cameras operating at all times, the resource officers would activate them only when responding to cases of suspected criminal activity or when assisting school personnel with matters that could result in disorderly or otherwise disruptive behavior.
The officers would be required to inform people when they are being recorded and could not record in places where a reasonable expectation of privacy exists, such as locker rooms and bathrooms.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and others have raised concerns about the use of the cameras by resource officers, saying they violate students’ privacy and could potentially provide other law enforcement agencies, such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement, with student information.
“These videos are being watched without parental consent at the police department and are being stored there,” said Betsy Paz-Gyimeso, a parent and community specialist and interpreter in the district.
She said she worries about how the cameras affect students’ perceptions of school resource officers and whether it makes them uncomfortable.
“At the last workshop, a question was asked about whether facial recognition technology is being used and the chief couldn’t really answer,” Paz-Gyimeso said.
“I think this is the right thing to do given the juncture we’re at,” said school board member Anna Trevorrow. “I think there’s hesitation around the use of body cameras by SRO’s in our schools for good reasons. Who has access to that information and how is it stored? There are concerns about whether students feel comfortable when they’re being recorded and I think we need to have more conversations before we fully act on it.”
Rodriguez also expressed concerns Tuesday about the cost of storing data captured by the cameras and whether the school district should expect to see that cost passed on to it in the future.
He said the police chief’s departure from the meeting raises questions about whether the department has respect for the school board and its decisions.
“Regardless of how good the two individuals are we have, the program has some serious issues,” Rodriguez said. “Today we’re about to see what exactly is the spirit of the Portland Police Department’s intentions to have a relationship with Portland Public Schools.”
Also Tuesday, the board met in executive session to begin its annual evaluation of the superintendent. Rodriguez thanked Botana after the session for his work in the district and said the evaluation process is off to a good start.
“I think we had a good conversation in this executive session that is supportive of the superintendent and how well he works with us,” Rodriguez said.
©2019 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.