Joe Walsh, left, of the Oregon Progressive Party told the council that surveillance cameras are dumb and cited an ACLU study that says they dont help fight crime.
  • Denis C. Theriault
  • Joe Walsh, left, of the Oregon Progressive Party told the council that surveillance cameras are "dumb" and cited an ACLU study that says they don't help fight crime.
Nearly a month after privacy concerns and community outrage first put the idea on hold, the Portland Police Bureau this afternoon finally won permission to install surveillance cameras on private buildings. The bureau wants the cameras to help crack down on drug sales in places like Old Town and Chinatown.

Curiously, though, the city council vote wasn't the unanimous affair the bureau and Mayor Sam Adams' office had been hoping for when they first tried to put the matter on the council's "consent agenda" in late April. Commissioner Amanda Fritz said no after her colleagues refused to include a provision calling for annual reports on how the cameras are working.

But more importantly, the vote came a day after Police Chief Mike Reese submitted a proposed policy meant to guide how and when Portland cops can record citizens. Commissioner Dan Saltzman, convinced by Portland Copwatch's Dan Handelman and ACLU of Oregon lobbyist Becky Straus that the camera proposal needed more vetting, had insisted on seeing rules before he'd consider saying yes. If advocates hadn't spoken up, the proposed rules never would have been written.

Those rules attempt to address privacy concerns by banning recording of "private areas or areas where a reasonable expectation of privacy exists" and insisting that cameras would be used "to monitor public spaces where known or suspected criminal activities have existed." The rules also place limits on how long the bureau would be permitted to keep recordings, both from surveillance cameras as well as things like "assemblies, protests, and demonstrations"—30 days, unless used in a criminal case.

"I will give credit to Dan Handelman and Becky Straus for flagging this. It did raise a larger issue about video surveillance and the potential for abuse," said Saltzman, who said he was comfortable the rules put forward by Reese will keep cops from snooping on people for "personal joy" or to satiate any "voyeuristic tendencies."

But while commissioners were (mostly) happy, advocates still don't think the rules go far enough.

Handelman, in a story due to be published in this week's Mercury, complains the new policy is still too loose when it comes to defining things like "criminal activity."

"It still seems like there's too much wiggle room," he told me. "Say jaywalking happens on a corner. Are you going to put cameras out there, too?"

During the meeting, he also said the rules still allow officers to film protests, marches, and free-speech assemblies (and then keep copies of those recordings) in defiance of state law that's supposed to prevent cops from gathering evidence on political protesters.

And Straus, of the ACLU, said she was troubled that the council shot down Fritz's request for a report next year and that the proposed policy didn't lay out what would happen if someone hacked into the city's cameras.

Deputy City Attorney David Woboril said the language on "criminal activity" still needs a "tune up," but said the cameras would be trained on serious crime hotspots. He also said the city is permitted to hold onto recordings when they become evidence in criminal investigations, for training purposes, when they might be needed to defend the city in tort cases, or when officers face discipline.

Adams echoed that in his remarks before voting.

"Criminal activity is not jaywalking. It is not overstaying your parking permit," he said. "Criminal activity is drug dealing. it is sex trafficking."

Reese, meanwhile, was on hand at the meeting to remind everyone that the proposal to put city cameras on private property, while a first for Portland's cops, is hardly as groundbreaking as people might think. He mentioned the cameras TriMet has trained on public spaces at every stop and the security cameras on government buildings that also look out into rights of way.

"The reality," he said, "is that cameras are everywhere."