Portland’s plan to buy police body cameras before developing policies governing how they’ll be used drew criticism at Wednesday’s City Council meeting, where community members turned out to testify for a different approach.

Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who once supported the plan to move forward, is reconsidering her position after hearing community input.

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“I am concerned that we’re asking for the wrong thing,” City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said during a presentation on the acquisition process by Tammy Mayer, the Portland Police Bureau’s body camera program manager. “What you’re asking for in your requirements are not consistent with what the needs are that we have for this body cam program.”

A tentative timeline for the $2.6 million contract would have vendor demonstrations happening in mid-April, and a two-month pilot program launching in August.

The U.S. Department of Justice is requiring a body camera program as a necessary step to bring the city back into compliance with a 2014 settlement over Portland police use of force. In a letter sent to city attorney Robert Taylor and Police Chief Chuck Lovell in November, federal prosecutors outlined their expectations for the city’s body camera policies. In that letter, the Justice Department lawyers said that, while the city would retain ownership and control of body cam footage, they would like a third-party vendor to maintain the recordings.

“If the (request for proposal) doesn’t start out with a third-party vendor, then we are failing ourselves,” Hardesty said. “We’re going to end up piloting something that we don’t want, and we’re going to end up implementing it.”

Mayer said that purchasing body cameras is a separate issue from determining policies such as whether it’s the city or a third party that should manage video data.

A Portland police officer photographed from behind.

A 2016 OPB file photo of a Portland officer. The city's police bureau has agreed to obtain and adopt body cameras for officers under an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Bryan M. Vance / OPB

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“The policy at the local agency determines who can see the data,” Mayer said. “If officers can review it prior or after doing the reports, if the training division can use it for training classes, if supervisors have a requirement to randomly view videos to make sure policies are being complied with – all of that piece is determined in the policy.”

Community members who offered testimony at Wednesday’s City Council meeting unanimously agreed that a body camera policy should be written before the city makes major purchases.

Many body camera platforms have advanced capabilities that can activate the cameras in tense situations without requiring action by an officer. For example, some cameras activate anytime a car’s lights and sirens are turned on or if an officer draws their weapon. If the final policy the city writes requires cameras to be activated in those situations, but the body cameras the city obtains do not have those capabilities, it will fall on officers to turn their cameras on.

“If you start with the policy first and then purchase, the policy will reflect more what I think the city and community is trying to do here,” said Sandy Chung, executive director of the ACLU of Oregon. “There may be issues that we’re not even thinking about that will really come out through the policy discussion.”

Chung said the city is putting itself at a disadvantage by purchasing cameras before writing the policies.

A potentially complicating factor: Body-camera policies are still being hammered out in negotiations between the city and Portland Police Association, the union representing rank-and-file officers. Those negotiations are happening in private, although the public got a rare glimpse of the tensions Sunday during a Portland Committee on Community-Engaged Policing meeting, attended by police union President Aaron Schmautz and U.S. Justice Department lawyers.

The police union wants officers who have used force to be able to review camera footage before writing their reports, a practice known as “prereview.” The Department of Justice and community organizations insist that officers should have to write their reports first before reviewing footage and, if necessary, writing a supplemental report.

Schmautz said “20 out of the 22 largest police agencies in the country allow for prereview.”

Jared Hager, an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Oregon overseeing the settlement agreement, said a distinction needs to be made between what is common practice and what is best practice.

“Every agency in Oregon might do something a certain way, some of the big cities might do things a certain way, but those were the natural outgrowth of a union’s ability to bargain those provisions with their city governments,” Hager said. “To me, it reflects the strength of the union’s ability to bargain…it doesn’t necessarily represent a best practice.”

City Council will vote Feb. 9 on the proposed body camera acquisition plan.

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