Kenneth Huey

EVEN BEFORE Mayor Charlie Hales hastily exited city council chambers amid a hail of profanity last week, it was clear: Portland’s first glimpse at rules for police body cameras wasn’t going great.

After more than a year of work and six public hearings on the topic, the city had just unveiled a draft policy [PDF] for how cops will be required to use the fast-spreading technology that’s popped up in the wake of endless questionable police shootings around the country.

City officials didn’t actually want to unveil the draft policy yet. It had to be revealed because it was mentioned in a tentative agreement with the city’s largest police union, the Portland Police Association (PPA), over a new contract.

Still, by the time the draft saw daylight, it had the full support of the PPA. With public approval, Portland might be one step closer to a tool advocates say can improve police accountability and slash citizen complaints.

The thing is, if the intermingled anger over the draft body cam policy and the (largely unrelated) new police union contract at the September 28 hearing are any indication, the public does not approve. Nor do some city officials.

“From my perspective, this current version of the policy would set back oversight,” says Constantin Severe, director of the city’s Independent Police Review, which investigates citizen complaints against cops. Severe’s boss, City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero, voiced similar concerns in an October 3 memo to city council members.

They’re not alone. The draft policy the city’s worked up falls short of the ideals advocated by national civil rights groups.

In August, a Washington, DC-based consulting firm called Upturn teamed up with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights to look at body camera policies in cities throughout the country, scoring them with a set of principles it says are necessary to protect civil rights—things like when cops can view the footage they’ve taken, and how strictly they’re forced to hit the record button during an incident.

Chicago, according to the audit, has a fairly robust policy. Fresno? Not so much.

So the Mercury asked Upturn to grade Portland’s nascent policy. The results weren’t great.

Out of eight categories—scored with a self-explanatory green check, yellow circle, or red X—Portland’s draft policy aced just two, according to Upturn’s reading. The firm says the policy adequately protects the privacy of sensitive parties like victims and witnesses, and doesn’t leave much wiggle room in what types of events must be recorded.

One category, limiting officers’ ability to misuse footage, got partial approval. Five additional categories were given a red X, meaning the policy is problematic or doesn’t address the matter. Groups like the ACLU of Oregon and Portland Copwatch have also raised concerns.

That might change. Hales and others have made clear in recent days that the body camera policy is merely a draft, and that the public will have an opportunity to offer critiques and discuss potential edits.

The mayor, who’s out of office at the end of the year, is far more focused on pushing through a new contract with the police union than nailing down a body camera policy. As Hales told the Mercury recently: “By the time the body camera policy is adopted, I will be a private citizen.”

But if he’s too busy to dig into the specifics, you shouldn’t be. Here are four pieces of the draft body camera policy that should be discussed before it’s finalized.

SERT Officers Are Left Out

Under the policy, gang cops, transit cops, patrol officers, and others are all specifically required to wear body cameras. Left out? Cops working on the Special Emergency Reaction Team (SERT), Portland’s version of SWAT.

That’s a problem for oversight advocates. Portland Copwatch’s Dan Handelman says the omission makes no sense, since such officers are “most likely as a unit to use implements of deadly force.” The ACLU of Oregon has argued the same thing.

Hales, when asked about this omission on Monday, said he wasn’t aware of it. But PPA President Daryl Turner argues the rule makes sense, since the city doesn’t want to give up SERT’s tactical secrets.

“They are highly trained individuals,” Turner said. “We wouldn’t want those things to be on camera.”

Turner’s opinion has outsize weight. The city has agreed that the body cam policy is subject to “mandatory bargaining,” meaning that if the union doesn’t like it, it can file a grievance and take its case to an arbitrator—a scenario that most often works out in the union’s favor.

In Handelman’s view, it’s fine if the city wants to limit access to sensitive SERT recordings—it just needs to possess them.

“You can exempt it from release,” he says. “You just need to record it.”

Incidentally, the draft policy might also leave out the police bureau’s Crisis Negotiation Team, which sometimes joins the SERT in responding to highly charged scenarios. The policy’s wording is unclear.

Exceptions to Hitting Record

Portland’s draft policy got high marks from Upturn for its insistence that cops activate their cameras, in most cases, “upon receipt of a call for service where a possible crime is in progress or has just occurred”—even when an officer self-initiates a stop.

The policy also requires officers to “notify a supervisor and document the reason” if they failed to hit record at a prescribed time.

The language is in line with what advocates recommend—but it has the potential to leave out vital footage. According to a September 30 piece in the Atlantic, a central weakness of new body camera policies around the country is that officers are failing to record during high-profile events.

Recent officer-involved shootings in Charlotte, Chicago, and DC, all included instances of an officer not pressing record. "In case after case, police departments say officers did not have their body cameras activated when it counted," the Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer writes. 

In high-stress instances, Portland’s draft policy gives officers an out: It says in cases of a perceived “immediate threat,” cops don’t have to press record until they’re out of danger.

Cops View Footage Before Reporting

The draft policy says officers get to review their body cam footage before writing an incident report unless deadly force was used.

That’s a provision that’s been pushed nationally by the police lobby, and which the PPA’s Turner says is necessary to help prosecutions. But it’s a red flag for many.

“I’d be really concerned about a system where a cop gets to review the evidence and the suspects don’t,” says City Commissioner Steve Novick.

The ACLU, Portland Copwatch, and Upturn all agree.

“Pre-report viewing by officers creates an uneven playing field,” Harlan Yu, a principal at Upturn, told reporters when unveiling his firm’s report in August. “This gives officers an undue advantage over other witnesses in a court of law. Officer statements will always appear more accurate.”

Even Portland’s exemption for deadly force incidents, which a handful of cities across the country have used, isn’t helpful in Upturn’s view, since there is still leeway for senior police officials to allow an officer to view the footage.

Supervisors Have Very Limited Access to Footage

For IPR’s Severe, a central problem with the draft policy is that it hamstrings the bureau from overseeing cops’ performance via video.

The policy contains provisions that say supervisors and professional standards officers can’t look at video for a performance review or to discover policy violations, and that they may not “randomly” review recordings of any officer.

“You’re not allowing the city to use this as a means of being proactive in looking at body-worn cameras and making sure these tools are measuring up,” Severe says. “Once you’re a year or two into using these body-worn cameras, how do they work? And are members using them appropriately?

“I don’t really think this meets the public’s expectations.”

What public input for the draft body camera policy looks like remains to be seen.

Hales has introduced language that would direct the police bureau to convene a “stakeholder committee” to review the policy for best practices, and would allow the general public to comment as well. A report will eventually go before city council.

But as we noted above, all changes will need to pass muster with the PPA, lest they lead to an acrimonious labor dispute. Turner, the union’s president, promises he’s keeping an open mind.

“It’s all negotiable,” he says. “What we’ve done is put together the four corners. From what we can tell right now, this is what the policy is. Things might change.”