In anticipation of the U.S. Department of Justice forcing the city’s hand, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler is directing the police bureau to prepare for a body worn camera program.
“I am not alone in supporting police body worn cameras,” Wheeler said in a statement Tuesday. “At least 75 other large government agencies use body worn cameras for policing. As you might have read in the media, the U.S. Department of Justice has asked the City to adopt a body worn camera program as a remedy in order to achieve substantial compliance under our settlement agreement.”
The Justice Department is urging the city to adopt body cameras and other accountability measures to bring the city back into compliance with the 2014 settlement agreement.
Wheeler said he directed the police bureau to begin researching the different camera systems available, seek bids from companies, and research federal grant money that might be available to help with the approximately $1 million tab to get the program started and estimated $1.5 million annual cost to maintain it.
Portland is the largest city in the U.S. that doesn’t have officers wear body cameras. The bureau nearly launched a pilot program last year, but it was put on hold because of pandemic-related budget cuts.
“Given the citywide budget reductions required due to the impacts of the pandemic, I had to withdraw my funding request for that initiative,” Wheeler said.
For years, some city leaders and police accountability activists were skeptical the cameras were effective accountability tools. Until recently, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty was among their sharpest critics, saying even when footage of police brutality is widely available, it seldom leads to accountability or change.
Research into body cameras shows mixed results. Some studies have shown use of force and complaints decline substantially after issuing body cameras. In cities like Portland, however, where departments have operated under a DOJ consent decree or settlement agreement, those declines are less dramatic. Often, the studies have shown, the improvements are temporary.
Hardesty’s position softened in July after Justice Department lawyers explained to her and other city officials some of the ways cities across the country are using the newest body camera technology.
“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,” Hardesty said in a statement after the meeting.
Body camera technology has become far more integrated into police systems in recent years. Cameras can automatically turn on if gunshots are heard, if an officer draws their weapon or when an officer turns on their lights and sirens. Supervisors can also see an officer’s camera stream in real time.
Other new technology and policies could assuage some critics’ concerns. For example, it’s much easier to blur victim and bystander faces before footage is released, public facing dashboards can be created to share footage and the DOJ is pushing the city to adopt policies barring officers from reviewing body camera footage before they write their reports.
“That’s not your individual subjective recollection of what happened,” said Jonas Geissler, a senior trial attorney at the DOJ’s civil rights division. “It really undermines the objective nature which is the constitutional test for uses of force: the threat, severity, and resistance encountered by the officer at the time force was used.”
Implementing body cameras will have to pass more than DOJ muster. Portland’s police union needs to sign off, too, and that might prove challenging. Attorneys for the city and the police union are currently negotiating body camera policies behind closed doors as part of the union contract.
In May, the union proposed a body camera program that would have allowed officers to view footage before writing a report and erected strict barriers to releasing footage to the public.