December 27: This story has been updated to include a modified contract amount for the purchase of body cameras.

December 3: This story has been updated to clarify the delay in implementation.

A long-delayed plan to outfit the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) with body cameras may soon come to fruition. The city initially approved spending up to $2.6 million on a contract with Axon to purchase body cameras that will be integrated into everyday policing. On December 13, the council modified that purchase price to $10 million, in what city staff said was necessary to secure more cameras, at a discounted rate. 

A police procurement analyst noted the city will need about $2 million each year for the next five years, "to implement this program effectively and successfully." The $10 million price includes a buffer for future expenses. 

The Portland City Council's approval of the purchase agreement paves the way for a long-awaited, permanent use of cameras worn by officers. City staff estimate the cameras will be in use by late summer or early fall 2024.

Portland lags behind other major cities, and even other law enforcement agencies in the region, in its use of body-worn cameras to record interactions and incidents of on-duty officers. The devices have historically been used to help provide evidence and a clearer record of incidents involving use of force.

A 2012 settlement agreement between the city of Portland and the US Department of Justice over PPB’s policing practices led to calls for the bureau to start using body cameras to increase transparency and accountability in policing. The city began exploring body cameras in 2014, and funded the program about six years ago, but multiple factors caused a delay in implementation—including the pandemic and the requirement for DOJ approval. Last year, when the city began negotiating with the police union over body camera policies, rules dictating when officers can review footage became a sticking point. Those negotiations briefly stalled the program until earlier this year, when a pilot program was rolled out from August to October. 

Axon was previously selected for the city contract last year, but the bulk of the cameras and equipment have yet to be purchased. City leaders were eager to move forward on the long-awaited body cameras, but the city’s bidding and purchasing process has drawn scrutiny from at least one group.

Marc Poris of Portland Copwatch, an independent, volunteer watchdog group, said the city’s process for choosing Axon as its supplier was opaque. Axon was among four companies to bid on the city contract. The city took heat for awarding the contract to Axon without public input.

Poris said Portland Copwatch wrote to a city staffer responsible for posting the agenda documents “in hopes of seeing the actual evaluation criteria and report,” but the group couldn’t attain basic information without paying for a public records request. 

Poris also questioned the reliability of body cameras, which don’t capture the activity of the person wearing them, only the view from the camera. 

The city’s website indicates an evaluation committee determined Axon, formerly Taser International, was the most qualified bidder, and met all the city’s requirements. Notably, Axon’s relationship with the city of Portland started long before the body camera pilot project this year. 

An Axon body camera used by Portland police. courtney vaughn

City records show the company spent $3,000 on lobbying city employees between 2015 and 2017, and helped inform the city’s current body camera policy by providing sample policies from other jurisdictions that Axon has contracts with. No other vendor who submitted a bid to the city for body cameras shows up in city lobbying reports. 

Louise Hansen, the city's elections officer, clarified that lobbying entities only have to provide "a good faith estimate of total money spent" on lobbying city officials.

Portland City Commissioner Rene Gonzalez railed against Copwatch members for their criticism. 

“I just want to first observe my disappointment with a segment of the police accountability advocacy community that continues to attempt to make the perfect the enemy of the good,” Gonzalez said. “This is an important step forward for the city of Portland. It’s long overdue.”

Gonzalez said body cameras are “imperative in mitigating our risk of sometimes unfounded claims made against Portland police.”

Cameras remain on during officer shifts, with some exceptions

The cameras worn by PPB automatically activate when an officer draws a service weapon, or when a police vehicle’s emergency lights are turned on. Officers are expected to manually activate the cameras while responding to calls and during “public order events.” Critics have questioned the legality of police filming people taking part in demonstrations or protests, noting the need for distinction between compliance with city rules for police and rules against mass surveillance of protesters. 

The cameras won’t be used during interviews with sexual assault or trafficking victims, unless victims consent. Police are also instructed not to activate cameras while in medical or mental health treatment facilities, unless there is a legitimate law enforcement reason to record. 

The city’s current body camera policy allows officers to review footage prior to drafting reports or conducting investigations, but major use of force incidents require involved officers and witnesses to give their account of the events before reviewing footage. 

The policy also requires officers to upload footage after each shift. The cameras don’t allow for footage to be tampered with or deleted. 

Staff with PPB and the mayor’s office said the current policies are subject to further review and negotiation between the city and police union, meaning policy changes could take place before the cameras are fully implemented next year.