Questions about the Portland police’s upcoming body camera program were front and center during a hearing before a federal judge Tuesday, as the city and the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) continue to struggle over a policy agreement. The use of body cameras is a condition of the longstanding settlement agreement between the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and city of Portland, which seeks to remedy PPB’s disproportionate use of force against people with mental illnesses.

Under the settlement agreement, the city of Portland and Portland Police Association (PPA)—the police union representing rank-and-file officers—are allowed to develop the policy that instructs how the body cameras are used. However, the two sides have been unable to agree on a key policy point. The PPA argues that officers should be able to review their camera footage before writing a report—a policy referred to as “prereview”—in any and all circumstances. The city believes officers should not be able to prereview footage in cases where force has been used, like when an officer shoots a member of the public; in those cases, the city argues that officers should write their report or make a statement from memory before being able to review video footage of the incident.

During the status hearing Tuesday morning, legal representation for the police union argued that allowing officers to review camera footage before writing a report increases the accuracy of the original report and is in line with other police department practices throughout the nation.

“We want officers to get it right,” a PPA representative said. “This is not a position the union has pulled out of thin air.”

According to an analysis of body camera policies in 32 cities comparable to Portland by the Mental Health Alliance—an advocacy group for people with mental illnesses that is involved in the settlement agreement—eight police departments prohibited prereview of camera footage in critical incidents prior to officers giving a statement about the incident. Nine departments only allow prereview after a critical incident if it is approved by a supervisor or chief of police, and 15 departments either allow or encourage officers to prereview video before giving a statement.

US District Judge Michael Simon, who oversees the settlement, questioned the union’s reasoning for wanting officers to prereview footage before giving a report. Simon noted that an officer’s memory of an event is important data when understanding and documenting force incidents.

“What’s wrong with the process of an officer’s subjective understanding and recollection of [an incident], followed by a review [of video footage], followed by a supplemental report?” Simon said. “I think that would be very effective in the truth seeking process.”

While Simon oversees the settlement agreement, the final body camera policy will be decided by a third-party arbitrator. The city and PPA are currently deciding on a neutral arbitrator, who then may take several months before making a decision.

“I would encourage everybody to reserve judgment until after the arbitration process is complete and the entire package is available,” City Attorney Robert Taylor said during the hearing. 

Simon said that he was “reserving judgment, but not necessarily reserving questions.”

While the DOJ has declined to declare a formal opinion on the body camera policy until after the arbitrator makes a policy determination, DOJ attorney Jared Hager noted that Portland should not look to other cities as a blueprint for its body camera policy because Portland’s adoption of the technology is only in response to the unique conditions that put it into a settlement agreement with the DOJ in the first place. In other words, the body cameras are a tool to solve a problem with the Portland police’s use of force without proper documentation during the 2020 protests and the body camera policy should be developed with that problem in mind.

Hager also raised concerns with a part of the proposed policy that limits a supervisor from reviewing more than three body camera videos as part of an officer’s annual review.

“If I told my boss she could only read three of my briefs, I’d probably be out of a job,” Hager said.

Representatives for the city and police union noted that there is no similar limit for body camera videos that record use of force incidents, just a limit for end of year performance reviews.

The status hearing also touched on the Police Accountability Commission (PAC)—the volunteer committee responsible for developing a new, voter-approved police oversight system for officers who engage in misconduct that’s now under the purview of the DOJ settlement. According to PAC member Aje Amaechi, the settlement dictates the commission complete their work by late October 2023, but the Portland City Council has directed the PAC to complete their recommendations in June. Amaechi called the city deadline “arbitrary” and that shortening the time the PAC has to complete its work “feels like an act of sabotage.”

Judge Simon declined to weigh in on the timing of the PAC’s work, saying that it was up to the commission, the city, and other involved parties.

The court also touched on the recent investigation into the right-wing meme that appeared in a 2018 PPB training presentation. The meme, which threatened violence against protesters, was discovered in September 2021 and an investigation into who was responsible for including the picture in the training slides was launched that same month. The investigation concluded in February 2023, finding Portland police officer Jeffrey McDaniel responsible for the meme. McDaniel received a 100-hour suspension as punishment.

During a press conference Monday ahead of the status hearing, the Mental Health Alliance (MHA) raised concerns that the investigation into the meme slide took more than a year. Under the settlement, PPB investigations are expected to be completed within 180 days. 

“180 days came and went and came and went again, which is in clear violation of the settlement agreement,” said Eben Hoffer, a member of MHA, during the Monday press conference. “We're flummoxed and concerned as to why these high-profile, clear violations of a federal court order put in place by the Department of Justice receives no response from the Department of Justice, and we think that the judge should ask them why.”

While the length of the training slide investigation was not discussed in-depth during the hearing Tuesday, an independent court monitor could take on the role of enforcing the police reforms spelled out in the settlement agreement. Currently, the DOJ acts as both the plaintiff in the settlement agreement with the city and as a monitor for the progress of the settlement. The DOJ and city are currently in mediation over whether an independent monitor should join the settlement agreement.

The next status hearing for the settlement is scheduled for July 6.