For the past four years, $1.6 million reserved for Portland Police Bureau’s (PPB) inaugural body camera program has sat untouched in the city’s coffers.
Each year, Portlanders have been told that PPB is still researching how to roll out the project—and each year, Portland City Council has kept those funds cordoned off in its annual budget. Recent police budget concerns, however, have propelled the body camera discussion back into the spotlight, leaving the city poised for a mid-summer debate over a head-scratching question: Does sticking cameras on police officers really improve police accountability?
Portland’s body camera program was introduced by then-Mayor Charlie Hales in 2014, on the recommendation of a federal judge overseeing PPB’s use-of-force reforms. At the time, body cameras were seen as the silver bullet to reforming trigger-happy officers, serving as a way to gather evidence in police shootings and, ideally, improve community trust in law enforcement. Five years later, that perspective has changed.
According to national criminal justice experts, it's clear the accountability tool isn’t living up to its outsized expectations.
In a March 2019 report by the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University, researchers surveyed 70 different studies on police departments that rely on body cameras.
The results? There was no major change in officers’ decisions to use force against civilians, no increase in prosecutions against officers who use undue force, and no increase in trust between citizens and officers.
“Overall,” the report concluded, “effects from [body cameras] have been overestimated.”
Most damningly, the technology doesn't even seem to help in situations where video evidence should clearly help indict an officer. A 2015 trial against a South Carolina cop—whose body camera footage showed him shooting eight bullets into the back of an unarmed man running from the officer—resulted in a hung jury. The shiny new technology, it seems, does little to sway much of society’s entrenched bias in favor of law enforcement.
Or, as the George Mason report put it: “The unintended consequences frequently seen from technology are often the result of technology being filtered through the existing values, systems, and cultures of the organization, not hoped-for ones.”
These recent revelations around body cameras serve as a crucial backdrop to Portland City Council’s reignited conversation around its body camera program.
City Commissioner and police-accountability advocate Jo Ann Hardesty is the council’s strongest opponent to the cameras. Hardesty’s raised concerns that body camera footage will simply help officers get their story straight after using force against a member of the public. Other commissioners have been hesitant to embrace the costly program without research that firmly demonstrates its effectiveness.
“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 in May.
These are the same concerns raised by the city's Independent Police Review in 2016, after Hales made his initial pitch for body cameras. Neither the PPB nor its vocal union have clamored for body cameras, and neither have local police accountability groups. But Mayor Ted Wheeler—who insisted on keeping the body camera funding next year’s budget—is eager to bring the conversation to the public square at an upcoming City Council work session.
Let’s hope he’s done his research.