Portland, Ore., PD Revives Body Camera Discussions

The city has fluctuated on when and how to introduce the technology to officers, even setting aside the funds to make it happen. Now, officials seem to have renewed energy for the effort.

by Maxine Bernstein, The Oregonian / January 15, 2019
Shutterstock/JPL Designs

(TNS) — Portland police are reviving their effort to equip officers with body cameras nearly four years after a federal judge urged their use in the city.

A new program manager is leading a team within the Police Bureau to seek public input to draft policies to govern use of the cameras, retention of the recordings and access to the footage.

Tammy Mayer, a civilian employee, kicked off the first of 18 community meetings Friday in Northeast Portland.

Police also hope to work closely with Western Oregon University’s criminal justice graduate program to develop performance measures to evaluate the impact of the cameras.

The city council four years ago awarded $834,610 to put more cameras in police cars, but the bureau decided instead to use the money for body cameras. The city also put aside another $1.6 million in annual funding for the program in fiscal 2016-17.

But the reserve remained untapped after Mayor Ted Wheeler expressed a reluctance to move forward without more information.

“We haven’t really done anything with that money. We’re ready now,’’ Mayer said Friday.

She plans to address the city council about her team’s efforts and research by the end of the month.

She hopes to post a request for proposals for vendors in February and select two companies to provide cameras for testing by Central Precinct officers during a six-month pilot program from June through December.

The goal, she said, is to equip officers across the bureau with cameras by October 2020.

If the plan sounds familiar, it’s because the city embarked on a similar exercise in 2014 and 2015. A now-retired police captain held community sessions to draw feedback on policy questions, the bureau evaluated potential vendors and officers tested out a variety of cameras.

What’s changed since Wheeler put the idea on hold in March 2017?

Nicole Grant, Wheeler’s senior policy adviser, and Katie Shipley, an analyst from the city budget office, traveled with Police Bureau members last spring to Phoenix and Oakland to review their body camera programs and policies. Portland police also visited police departments in Anaheim and Fullerton, Calif.

“The mayor supports developing a limited pilot at the moment, supported by data collection and analysis,’’ Eileen Park, the mayor’s spokeswoman, said in an email. “Once the pilot is complete, the question of whether to proceed with full deployment will be revisited.’’

In an end-of-the-year message to her officers last month, Police Chief Danielle Outlaw wrote that the bureau plans this year to continue community outreach and internal discussions to set parameters and select a camera system for the pilot project.

Portland would follow Beaverton and Portland State University officers, who already wear cameras. Oregon State Police, Hillsboro and the Washington County Sheriff’s Office are now implementing body camera programs.

More than half of all medium-to-large police departments in the United States now use or are testing body-worn cameras, according to the Police Executive Research Forum. But many agencies are still grappling with deciding what footage to make public and how long to retain the recordings.

Mayer and the mayor’s office contend Portland police have had an advantage by waiting and learning from the mistakes other police agencies have made. But many community leaders have urged the city for years to adopt body cameras for officers, hoping they’ll increase police accountability and transparency.

Mayer is a former U.S. Air Force security forces officer and commander who joined the Police Bureau in October 2015 and spearheaded the rollout of a new regional law enforcement computer records management system. She said she recognizes she’s repeating a process that others in the Police Bureau have already undertaken and will incorporate the earlier public comments on body cameras in the renewed effort.

Questions to work out, she said, include: Determining who will wear the cameras, when they must be turned on or shut off, how long to keep the footage and whether officers can view the video before writing reports or getting interviewed for internal affairs inquiries.

State lawmakers approved a bill in 2015 that set some basic guidelines for law enforcement agencies that choose to outfit their officers with the cameras. Under the guidelines, when an officer has reasonable suspicion or probable cause that a crime has occurred or is about to occur, they can film an encounter. Police would be obligated to retain the footage for a minimum of 180 days.

In its earlier planning, the Police Bureau was leaning toward giving officers some discretion on when to turn the cameras off and on. They also were leaning toward not allowing video to roll inside a medical facility where a patient's privacy could be violated, during interviews of a reluctant witness or sexual assault victim or inside a private home when a suspect is no longer present.

Two years ago, a draft police union policy drew community criticism. It would allow officers who witness another officer's use of deadly force to review video recordings of the encounter from their own body cameras before writing their reports or view video taken from their body cameras before being interviewed in internal affairs cases that don't involve deadly force or deaths in police custody.

The draft agreement the city reached with the union in 2016, however, says “substantial additional public input’’ would be required before the policy is finalized.

The proposal calls for officers to turn the camera system power to the “on” position when they begin their shift and initiate an audio/video recording upon receiving a call for service where a possible crime is in progress or has just occurred. This includes any self-initiated activity where enforcement action occurs. The camera shall remain in record mode until the completion of the contact. This also includes unknown disturbances or calls involving people in a mental health crisis, with the caveat that officers be aware of privacy regulations, the draft agreement says.

The city also must budget ongoing costs to cover the program manager, an IT staff person, and four additional staff members in the records division to support the program, estimated to be roughly $500,000 per year.

U.S. District Judge Michael H. Simon, who monitors the city’s settlement with the U.S. Justice Department over police use of force against people with mental illness, has voiced support for the cameras. In a 2014 ruling approving the agreement that called for police reforms, he wrote:

“The court notes that as the technology in this area continues to improve and become more dependable and affordable, more city police departments in the United States are choosing to employ this technology in ways that protect both law enforcement officers and the public they serve."

Next week, the Police Bureau will include Mayer’s PowerPoint presentation on its website and more information about the revived body camera project.

©2019 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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