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Dylan Goldberger

Police body worn cameras are once again a talking point in the mayor's office. On Tuesday, Mayor Ted Wheeler instructed the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) to begin research on creating a bureau program that would require officers wear body cameras while on duty.

"I have directed the Police Bureau to begin researching equipment options and bids from vendors, while also pursuing possible grant funding opportunities to help pay for a body worn camera program," wrote Wheeler in an email sent to his office's mailing list.

This decision isn't necessarily news—nor is it necessarily his choice to make.

Portland has debated arming its police officers with body cameras for nearly a decade, never reaching a definitive conclusion. In 2014, then-Mayor Charlie Hales' proposal to stick body cameras on PPB was swiftly rejected by Daryl Turner, then-president of PPB's rank-and-file union, the Portland Police Association (PPA). At the time, Turner shared concerns with the cost of the technology and how time spent uploading and managing data would take away from officers' working hours. Hales' thinking mirrored that of the federal judge newly appointed to oversee the 2014 settlement agreement between the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and the City of Portland, established after the DOJ found Portland police to have a "pattern and practice" of using disproportionate force against people with mental illnesses.

In 2016, the city included a draft policy about body cameras in its contract with the PPA, one which allows officers to view body camera footage before writing reports about encounters with members of the public, unless the encounter was fatal. That policy, however, was never made official—and only reemerged as a plan when Wheeler took office in 2017. For several years, PPB routinely set aside $1.6 million in its annual budget to fund the program, yet the dollars went untouched as, according to Wheeler, PPB needed to further research the program. (Sound familiar?)

In 2019, Wheeler's plan to kick off a body camera pilot program within PPB lacked enough support by City Council to move forward, with Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty opposing officers' prioritized access to their video footage. “Why would we spend millions of dollars for a tool that is sold to the public as an accountability tool, when the [first] people that have access are the police?” Hardesty told the Mercury at the time.

Wheeler suggested spending more time researching body camera programs.

Two years later, and the conversation has shifted. Portland is now extremely close to finally exiting its settlement agreement with the federal government. Yet DOJ attorneys have insisted that, to reach that point, the city must implement a body camera program. This dealbreaker has appeared to sway Hardesty's opinion of the program.

After news of the DOJ's camera request broke in July, Hardesty tweeted: "I have been researching the issue and now believe there is new technology, policies, and additional best practices to draw from that can lead to a body camera program that produces better outcomes in policing, but the devil is in the details."

Like Hardesty, DOJ attorneys don't support a body camera policy that gives police a precedent to review camera footage prior to making a report.

The PPA, meanwhile, remains stuck on the 2016 body camera plan—one that would give officers the opportunity to review footage before giving testimony in court or writing a police report. In May, the PPA proposed a new body camera policy to be included in their contract with the city. Along with allowing officers to view footage, the proposal suggests giving a 2 percent raise to each officer who agrees to wear a body camera, suggesting that it would be an optional tool.

In a July 28 mediation meeting with the PPA, the city entered a clear response to the union's proposal.

The city's proposed addition to the contract, titled "Body Worn Cameras," reads: "The Union agrees to waive bargaining obligations regarding the City of Portland’s adoption of a policy on the use of body worn cameras."

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In short, the city's telling the PPA that, when a body camera policy is created, it's up to the city—and the city alone—to hammer out the details.

Today's announcement from the mayor's office signals that Wheeler is aware of the request made by the DOJ and the closed-door negotiations with the police union. However, PPB won't be able to move forward on actually rolling out a body camera program without a sign-off from the PPA and, likely, the public. There's also no funding set aside for a costly body camera system. In 2020, PPB estimated that it would cost the city $2.9 million to start the program and $1.8 million annually to operate it. There's little room in PPB's slimmed-down budget to meet that need.

"Adding body worn cameras can benefit all of us by increasing the transparency of police work," wrote Wheeler Tuesday. "We are laying the groundwork now to make this a real option."