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Portland Council OKs Body Camera Policy After a Decade of Debate

After nearly a decade of contentious debate surrounding the use of police body cameras, the Portland, Ore., City Council has approved a policy. Until now, Portland was the nation’s largest municipal police agency without the technology.

Portland, Ore._shutterstock_618208538
(TNS) — Portland City Council members on Wednesday unanimously adopted a negotiated body camera policy for police, ending a nearly decadelong impasse and allowing the nation’s largest municipal police agency lacking the technology to now outfit some officers with the equipment.

“Today is a historic day for our city,” said Mayor Ted Wheeler, who also serves as the city’s police commissioner. “After a decade of discussions and negotiations, we’re finally able to move forward and implement a critical tool for transparency and accountability.”

The vote allows police to start a two-month pilot project as early as this summer. Patrol officers from Central Precinct and officers in the specialized gun violence Focused Intervention Team will be the first to wear the cameras.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Heidi Brown, who helped draft the policy, described it as the “most progressive policy in the state of Oregon.”

Several residents called the cameras critical and praised the policy as “reasonable.”

Kristin Olson, a private civil trial lawyer in Portland, said the body cameras have become “standard accountability tools” in every other major metropolitan city and this policy “will bring us up to par with the rest of the big cities and in the United States.”

Others, including representatives of the Mental Health Alliance, American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon and Oregon Justice Resource Center, urged the council to postpone a vote and called for greater privacy protections for residents and tighter restrictions on police.

Sandy Chung, executive director of the ACLU of Oregon, called for the policy to cut back police discretion over when officers can turn on the cameras.

Under the policy, the cameras will automatically activate when police turn on their car’s overhead emergency lights, take out their stun guns or draw their guns. They’re required to manually turn on the cameras when they’re dispatched to calls, engaging with people during protests, pulling someone over in a car or stopping a pedestrian, conducting searches of cars or people and conducting certain in-custody interviews of juveniles. They must not film inside a medical facility or during interviews of sexual assault victims unless the person agrees to it.

Deputy Police Chief Mike Frome, who was involved in the policy negotiations between the city and the Portland police union, said he met earlier Wednesday with a bureau team to start planning how to train officers for the pilot. He expects Axon body camera representatives to be in Portland in early August to teach officers how to use the equipment and its computer software.

Frome said he appreciated input from council staff and identified two former advisers to former Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesy. He said he’s excited to put cameras on Portland officers.

“It’s going to let the citizens of Portland know exactly what they’re getting out of their police officers,” he said. “It’s going to give the police officers that confidence to go out and do their jobs and not have to worry about minor squabbles over what was said later because the camera will tell us what was said.”

The city and Portland Police Association announced last week that they had reached a compromise after months of negotiations during contract talks. Talks continued after both sides declared an impasse on the body camera policy in February. The U.S. Department of Justice also gave its conditional approval for the policy to apply to the pilot project, while reserving its right to evaluate any final policy adopted before all officers are outfitted with cameras.

U.S. District Judge Michael H. Simon, who is overseeing a settlement between the federal government and the city on police use of force, had voiced support for the technology at a hearing nine years ago. Last April, Simon approved an amendment to the settlement that required the city to equip officers with cameras.

The key sticking point that stalled the adoption was whether officers would be allowed to view the footage before writing reports or being interviewed.

The policy sets out different requirements based on the level of force police use and whether an officer used force or witnessed the force.

City Council members said they hope the equipment will help improve police accountability and transparency and provide an objective means to capture police encounters on the street.

They said the policy reflects critical compromises and should give police more confidence to do their jobs, while also providing the public with a clearer look at how officers carry out their duties.

“While we may be the last major city to implement this policy, it’s essential that we’re catching up with the national best practices,” Commissioner Dan Ryan said.

Commissioner Rene Gonzalez called the policy “long overdue” and said the city should celebrate Wednesday’s momentous vote.

Commissioner Mingus Mapps criticized prior councils for failing to reach this point. “That failing stops today,” he said. “I am glad after nearly a decade of talk, the city of Portland finally follows through on the commitment we made to the DOJ and to the people of Portland.”

Commissioner Carmen Rubio said she’s glad the policy includes a clause that will allow the city to reopen talks on the camera policy during future contract bargaining talks.

Wheeler acknowledged that “being the last major city in America to implement a body-worn camera policy is not exactly a badge of honor.”

“But I can tell you this,” he said, “it wasn’t for lack of effort on anybody’s part here. ... I did have faith we would see this day.” He praised Brown, his public safety liaison Stephanie Howard and union president Sgt. Aaron Schmautz. The Portland Police Association represents rank-and-file officers, sergeants, detectives and criminalists — most of the Police Bureau’s 808 sworn officers.

The bureau expects to use $3.2 million that has been set aside for the purchase of the initial body camera equipment for the pilot program this year. After the pilot, the city expects to enter into a contract with Axon.

Under the agreement, officers who use deadly force cannot view their camera video until after they provide internal affairs investigators with an audio-recorded initial statement within 48 hours. This will apply to police who fire their guns, use neck holds or strike someone in the head, neck or throat with a hard object and when someone dies in their custody.

During that statement, officers must describe the call, what they observed, the threat they faced, any warnings or de-escalation tactics they used, the force used and if they provided medical aid.

“We called it a perceptual statement because everybody wants to know what was the officer’s perceptions,” Brown told the council.

Internal affairs investigators also won’t be allowed to view the camera footage before the initial statement by the officer who used force. The internal affairs investigators, however, can view the camera footage of officers who witnessed the force before interviewing them.

After an initial statement, there will be a break in the internal affairs interview, allowing the investigators and the officer involved and the officer’s lawyer to view the involved officer’s camera footage separately.

“Within a reasonable time,” the policy says, internal investigators can continue with the recorded interview and ask the officer to clarify any discrepancies between the initial statement and what the camera footage shows.

Officers cannot face discipline for any allegation of wrongdoing based on a difference or discrepancy between the initial statement and what the footage shows unless the city can prove the officer was being dishonest or trying to deceive investigators, according to a letter of agreement reached with the union.

Detectives in the homicide division conducting a parallel criminal investigation into police use of deadly force will have full access to all body camera footage.

Officers who use deadly force also may be asked by a supervisor, before reviewing their body camera footage, to provide an “on-scene, compelled public safety statement,” according to the policy. Supervisors ask this now and officers rarely provide one.

Officers who witness the use of police deadly force will be able to review their body-camera footage before providing a statement or writing a police report.

For force that results in serious physical injury, hospitalization or disability, or involves a person who is in a mental health crisis, both officers who use force and those who witnessed the force must provide a full account of what occurred to a supervisor at the scene before viewing camera footage. The on-scene account will be recorded on a body camera. Afterward, the officers can view their body camera footage and prepare a police report.

Officers who use or witness force causing a complaint of pain or a non-serious physical injury or use a less-lethal weapon that doesn’t cause serious physical injury also must provide an on-scene statement to a supervisor before viewing their body camera footage and writing their report. Their on-scene statements won’t be recorded.

Requiring on-scene recorded statements from officers involved in non-deadly force is a significant change from current practice and had been sought by the city in negotiations, according to city officials.

The four-page letter of agreement accompanying the policy says investigators will give officers who use force written instructions before any interview, and states that video evidence has its limitations but is intended to assist an officer’s memory.

Schmautz, the union president, did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment. In a public forum a year ago, Schmautz had argued that officer in a life-threatening, violent encounter may experience “tunnel vision” and forget a part of what happened and shouldn’t face discipline for potentially omitting something in a report or interview that shows up in the video, he said. He added that if officers are engaged in misconduct, the video will capture that.

Not everyone is pleased with the parameters of the policy.

The Oregon Justice Resource Center, a nonprofit that provides legal help to support underserved communities, and the Mental Health Alliance , a group of statewide organizations that advocate for people with mental illness, urged the council to postpone a vote, saying they couldn’t support the policy as written.

The alliance argued that the policy focuses a lot of attention on how to “protect officers from exposure and public accountability,” according to its letter to the council. The alliance and the Justice Resource Center both objected to “any pre-review” of body camera footage in any use of force by officers before they write reports.

The alliance also questioned how the city, police or Justice Department will judge the effectiveness of the 60-day pilot program and if there will be an opportunity for public feedback before a more expansive body camera program is put into place. The alliance representatives argued that not enough public comment was involved before crafting the compromise policy, though the city held its first public listening session nearly a decade ago.

The Oregon Justice Resource Center urged the city to add language to strengthen supervisors’ oversight of police use of the cameras and ensure greater protections for people’s privacy.

Amanda Lamb, the center’s law enforcement resource counsel, said the different requirements depending on the level of force makes the policy “confusing and difficult to implement.” The brief statement that an officer who uses deadly force must give to an internal affairs investigator before viewing their body camera footage isn’t sufficient, she said.

Brown acknowledged the compromise doesn’t include what everyone may have wanted.

“This is a great start,” she said. “We’ll learn from it and we’ll build from it.”

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