A years-long standoff between the City of Portland and the Portland Police Association over what policies will govern federally mandated body cameras ended in a stalemate this week. The two sides’ final respective proposals were released Friday and the decision now heads to an arbitrator to make the final decision.
The impasse came after the two sides agreed to a union contract last February but failed to agree on new policies over body cameras. Negotiations have been ongoing since then. Portland has the only city police force of the 75 largest departments in the country that doesn’t use body cameras.
The stickiest wicket, according to the two policies released Friday, is whether or not officers involved in use of force incidents will be allowed to view body camera footage before writing their initial reports, a policy known as “prereview.” The union wants it; the city does not.
The union’s proposed policy says an officer can review recordings from their assigned body camera before writing a report of any kind, including the reports officers must write after they use force against a member of the public.
The city’s proposed policy says officers can use their footage to write reports except in instances when force is involved. In those cases, officers will first “provide a full and candid account of the incident to a supervisor” before viewing the recording. In a case of deadly force, the city proposes that officers can only view their footage if approved by the chief.
In a brief press release accompanying the text of its final officer, the city said only that its offer “restricts prereview of footage in use of force events prior to an officer writing their report.”
Union leadership has previously argued that a majority of the largest cities allow for prereview. The union also pointed to recommendations from the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit made up of current and former law enforcement officials, which supports prereview.
In the Police Association’s press release accompanying their final offer, union president Sgt. Aaron Schmautz said the union supports body cameras but that viewing footage first is standard.
“Utilizing available evidence, including video, to complete comprehensive reports is consistent with every major agency in the State of Oregon with body cameras, as well as the vast majority of national agencies.”
The city disagrees and it has a powerful ally in the U.S. Department of Justice. Federal prosecutors overseeing the settlement agreement between the city and DOJ required the city to adopt a body camera program as one of the steps to address shortcomings revealed during the 2020 racial justice protests. The DOJ has stayed out of the union negotiations but in federal court filings, the justice department has insisted the city prohibit prereview.
“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,” Jared Hager assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Oregon overseeing the settlement agreement said in a community meeting last year. “To me, it reflects the strength of the union’s ability to bargain…it doesn’t necessarily represent a best practice.”
Hager said if an officer views his footage before writing a report, it would taint his recollection of why they chose to use force, adding everything depends on what was in the officer’s head at the time.
Federal prosecutors have said officers should write their reports first and write a supplemental report, if necessary, after viewing the footage.
Arbitration could take six to nine months and if the arbitrator sides with the union, it could open a new front in the conflict. The Department of Justice has said it reserves the right to reject the body camera policies and could ask U.S. District Judge Michael Simon to impose the department’s preferred policies prohibiting prereview.