Portland and police union agree on body camera policies

By Jonathan Levinson (OPB)
April 21, 2023 9:38 p.m.
A Portland police officer photographed from behind.

A Portland Police Bureau officer working at a protest in 2016. City officials and the police union reached a tentative agreement on body cameras Thursday.

Bryan M. Vance / OPB

A years-long impasse between the city of Portland and the Portland Police Association over body-worn camera policies ended Thursday night, as the two sides reached a tentative agreement that would govern a pilot program.


The stalemate centered on when officers would be able to review their footage: before writing their reports or after. The police union wanted officers to be allowed to review footage before writing their reports or giving a statement, even when an officer kills a member of the public.

The compromise would prevent officers from immediately reviewing body camera footage for cases involving a death. Instead, an officer would need to provide an on-scene statement to a supervisor and, within 48 hours, give a recorded interview to internal affairs. After that point, the officer could view their camera footage.

Officers aren’t the only ones limited in viewing the footage, according to the agreement.

Internal affairs investigators will also be prohibited from watching the footage before they speak to an officer for an initial interview. According to the policy, after the officer gives their initial statement to investigators, the group will take a break to watch the body camera footage.

The interview will then resume and officers will have the opportunity to clarify any discrepancies between the footage and their initial statement.

Officers who witness deadly use of force will be allowed to view their footage before providing a statement or writing their report.

Officers involved in lower-level uses of force, such as using an impact munition, pepper spray or a police dog, will be required to “provide a full and candid account of the facts and circumstances of the event” to their supervisor at the scene prior to viewing their footage. In the lowest level uses of force, those statements will not be recorded.

Release of footage will be handled by the police bureau’s records division and subject to Oregon public records law, which requires footage to be blurred so people are not identifiable.

“It was important to all parties that our policy was consistent with common practice, supported the unique needs of our city, and addressed privacy and transparency concerns highlighted by the community,” a press release from Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office said. “It was also vital that the policy is usable for officers and supported by science.”

The Portland Police Association did not respond to a request for comment.

Body cameras have become standard accountability tools for police departments in recent years. But research has shown they have mixed results. Body cameras often lead to decreased uses of force immediately after they are implemented but those gains dissipate over time. Research published in August found that traffic cases and cases involving drugs or alcohol move through the courts quicker if body camera footage is available. Researchers also found that guilty outcomes were less likely for traffic cases and “person cases” involving crimes like assault or robbery if there was body camera footage. One explanation is that video allows lawyers to key in on details that lead to the cases being thrown out.

The language in Portland’s compromise policy and the accompanying letter of agreement between the city and the union includes language that appears to question the credibility of any footage.

“The Bureau acknowledges the limitations of officer perceptions and memory in stressful events, along with the limitations of video evidence,” the policy states.

The letter of agreement says officers who use force will be given written instructions before giving their statements. Those instructions caution that body cameras don’t capture the entire scene and that the frame rate could potentially “limit the camera’s ability to capture movements normally seen by the human eye.”

“You are not expected to ‘explain away’ or reconcile the differences, as we can all acknowledge that during the incident,” the written instructions say. “Simply because your perceptions are different than the video does not mean you are lying.”


Experts acknowledge, however, that body cameras are imperfect and one tool among many to help better understand what happens during use of force incidents.

University of North Carolina Criminal Justice Professor Janne Gaub said just because someone is able to watch a video in slow motion and see something doesn’t mean an officer would have been able to do the same in real time.

“There’s opportunities to look at footage and look back and see things that maybe the officer would not have been able to see or would not have been able to process quickly enough,” Gaub said.

Some of the tension between the city and police union might come down to how body cameras have been marketed. Gaub said companies have told police departments that body cameras are a valuable tool to protect against frivolous complaints while telling the public they are valuable accountability tools.

Whether or not they are effective, ultimately comes down to how they are implemented, she said.

“It’s not going to be an accountability or transparency tool if there’s pieces in the policy or in the practice that basically cut it off at the knees,” she said, adding that if police try undermine body camera video too often, it might backfire when they want to use it to convict someone or vindicate an officer.

Portland is the largest police department in the country without a body-worn camera program. The two sides began the negotiations in 2021 and remained far apart on a number of seemingly intractable issues.

The city wanted officers who use force against members of the public to give statements first.

The union, on the other hand, wanted officers to be able to view their footage before writing any report, including after using force.

They cut negotiations off in February and sent their respective final offers to an arbitrator whose decision would have been binding. Thursday’s agreement avoids arbitration.

Portland’s tentative body camera policies deviate from other cities. In Atlanta, officers who use deadly force are prohibited from viewing their body camera footage. For non-lethal use of force, Atlanta police officers have to write their incident reports first and note on the report if they watched the footage after.

In Seattle, officers involved in use of force incidents are not allowed to view their footage before giving statements. When a Seattle police officer kills someone, the footage is released within 72 hours.

And in San Francisco, officers who shoot someone or are involved in an in-custody death aren’t allowed to view their footage before giving a statement. After giving a statement, officers can view the footage prior to being interviewed.

In other cities, such as Sacramento, Austin and Salt Lake City, officers are allowed to view their footage before writing reports, even for use of force incidents.

Portland is required to adopt body cameras under the settlement agreement between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice stemming from excessive police use of force. Throughout the process, federal prosecutors overseeing the agreement have demanded the police bureau’s body camera policies bar officers who use force from viewing their footage before giving a statement.

In a letter sent to the city and police union Thursday, the Department of Justice approved the policies which will govern the 60-day pilot period but noted the policies didn’t fully satisfy all of DOJ’s requirements. The lawyers said they will revisit the issue after the pilot ends to ensure the final directive addresses their concerns. In a Nov. 2021 letter sent to city leaders outlining their desired policies, the DOJ said they wanted supervisors to have the ability to remotely view officers’ cameras and randomly review footage for performance evaluations.

The city and union agreed that remote viewing wouldn’t be allowed and supervisors will be limited to viewing only three videos a year for performance reviews.

Department of Justice lawyers have said they have the right to reject future camera policies if they don’t approve, and said they could ask the judge overseeing the settlement agreement to impose the department’s preferred policies.

The pilot will run for 60 days and include officers at Central Precinct and the focused intervention team.