This week, Portland City Council will discuss the selection process for a vendor to operate the city’s first police body camera pilot program. The council decision is only the latest step in a years-long debate over the program’s future. Unlike in the past, however, it appears that this endeavor to equip Portland police officers with cameras will make it to the finish line, which would bring Portland on par with all other major police departments in the US. Before the conversation heads to City Hall, it’s worth taking a look back on the winding path that got us to this point.
Portland’s police body camera program was first introduced in 2014 by then-Mayor Charlie Hales. The recommendation came from a federal judge responsible for overseeing Portland’s settlement agreement with the US Department of Justice (DOJ)—one meant to undo Portland police officers’ trend of using disproportionate force against individuals with a mental illness.
Hales made his interest in a body camera program public a month after a cop fatally shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, an incident that sparked widespread protests and calls for police reform across the country. Body camera requirements for law enforcement officers, an idea endorsed by the Obama White House, became a central demand by police accountability groups, and pilot programs began popping up at major US police departments.
In 2013, Portland City Council decided to set $834,619 aside in the city’s budget to purchase body cameras for the Portland Police Bureau (PPB). But a body camera pilot program needed the approval of the Portland Police Association (PPA), the union for rank-and-file Portland officers, before moving forward. Initially critical of the idea, the PPA eventually came to an agreement with the city over a body camera policy in 2016. While the policy had the sign-off of the union and city leaders, however, the new policy lacked overwhelming support from the public.
As the Mercury reported at the time, that was due largely to four factors:
- The policy allowed cops working on the Special Emergency Reaction Team (SERT), Portland’s version of SWAT, to ditch the cameras.
- It didn’t penalize officers for forgetting to hit record in cases of a perceived “immediate threat” (which is often how police describe feeling before they shoot a member of the public).
- It limited police supervisors from viewing footage to review an officer’s job performance.
- It allowed officers to review their body camera footage before writing an incident report, unless deadly force was used.
Despite approving $1.6 million in additional city dollars to fund a pilot program, public opposition kept City Council from moving the policy forward, instead allowing the debate to carry over to incoming mayor Ted Wheeler. But Wheeler was dissuaded by the high costs associated with the program and faced pushback from City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who raised concerns about allowing officers who use force to view their camera’s footage before writing their official report about an incident. Wheeler, who also serves as Portland’s police commissioner, pumped the brakes until 2019, when PPB proposed a detailed pilot program. That program was set to go live in 2020. That plan was undermined by the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which left a $75 million crater in the city’s annual budget. The funds set aside for the pilot program were used to fill the financial gap.
The city’s reinvestment in a body camera program came from a familiar source: the DOJ. In July 2021, attorneys representing the DOJ told Portland officials that if it wanted to finally move beyond the confines of its settlement agreement, it needed to furnish all PPB officers with body cameras. By August, Wheeler had directed PPB to return to the drawing board and research a new body camera pilot program and look into grant funding. In November, City Council approved a budget package that reserved $2.7 million for PPB body cameras.
Portland began 2022 with another familiar character blocking the pilot program’s path: the police union. The city remains in negotiations with the PPA over its current contract, a document that includes policy language for body cameras. One of the sticking points is whether or not police officers who use force against someone should be able to review their camera footage before writing a report on the incident. Disagreement over the policy kept both parties from reaching an agreement within the time allowed for collective bargaining under state law, forcing them into closed-door mediation in June. Both sides remain in mediation over six months later.
If the two parties cannot agree on a body camera policy, they could decide to settle on a contract that doesn’t include the policy and force an arbitration ruling on the standalone policy. Regardless of the outcome, the policy must be approved by the DOJ before becoming city policy. In November, the DOJ sent Portland officials a letter outlining what it would like to see in a city body camera policy. That included cameras for all sworn officers (including SERT) and prohibiting officers who use force from viewing their camera’s footage before writing a report or being interviewed by investigators about the incident. Jared Hager, an assistant US attorney representing the DOJ, echoed these requests in a virtual community listening session Sunday with members of the public.
“We believe that any use of force report should be written before officers review their body worn camera footage, in order to ensure that we have an accurate captioning of an important piece of evidence that the body worn camera is not going to capture and that is: ‘Why did the officer use force? What was in the officer's mind the moment before they used force against a civilian?’” Hager said. “That evidence can only be captured if an officer writes a report before viewing the footage because otherwise their memory gets tainted by what they see on camera.”
PPA President Aaron Schmautz, meanwhile, shed light on the union’s counter-argument, calling body cameras a tool to help “refresh officers’ memories.”
“My only interest with my members going out and doing their jobs is to ensure that when they’re documenting [for the public] that they’re giving the most comprehensive and best reflection of what occurred,” said Schmautz. He noted that during high-stress moments, like ones when officers use force, officers could have memory loss. Allowing officers to view their camera footage before having to be interviewed by an investigator would allow for a fuller narrative, Schmautz said.
It’s not clear when the public will get to see an agreed-upon body camera policy—and what impact public opinion will have on its implementation. Police accountability and civil rights advocates have already raised a variety of potential concerns beyond those outlined in 2016, including fears that officers will use body worn camera footage as evidence in criminal investigations against members of the public.
On Wednesday, City Council will consider approving a plan to select an outside contractor to run a $2,600,000 body camera pilot program, despite not having an official policy in place. The city intends on selecting a vendor by July—and hopes to have the pilot running by the end of 2022.
Yet the city must have an official PPB body camera policy before the pilot program begins, a requirement that could again delay the rollout.
City commissioners will discuss the vendor selection process Wednesday morning, and vote on a final plan February 9.