Portland City Council members cleared the final path for police to start wearing body cameras Wednesday, ending the city’s tenure as the largest in the country whose officers don’t wear the devices.
“Today is a historic day for our city,” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said as he kicked off testimony before the vote. “After a decade of discussions and negotiations, we’re finally able to move forward and implement a critical tool for transparency and accountability.”
City attorneys and the union representing Portland Police officers came to an agreement late last week after nearly two years of negotiation. The disagreement centered primarily on when officers would be allowed to view their camera footage after using force. The city wanted officers to write use-of-force reports before viewing their camera footage. The police union wanted officers to be able to view footage and then write their reports.
The policies, approved unanimously, are a compromise reached after protracted negotiations between the city and union with City Council staff — not just city labor negotiators — participating throughout.
“Both Karly Edwards and Derek Bradley from then-Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty’s office were key parts of this,” Portland Police Bureau Deputy Chief Mike Frome told city commissioners. “When I read this policy I can find the DNA of every council office … if nothing else, this is a great example of how all the council offices can get together and actually create something.”
Portland Police will begin using the cameras later this year in a 60-day pilot program.
Officers who seriously injure someone, use force against someone with a mental illness, or against someone who has been handcuffed will give a recorded statement to their supervisor before being allowed to view their body camera footage and write their reports. For the lowest levels of force, such as pointing a firearm without firing it or using certain kinds of physical restraints, officers will give a non-recorded statement to their supervisor before viewing footage.
When a Portland Police officer kills someone, they won’t be allowed to view their body camera footage until after giving an initial statement to internal affairs investigators describing their in-the-moment observations of the scene, the threat they perceived and any warnings or de-escalation attempts they made. Investigators will also be prevented from viewing the footage until after taking the officer’s initial statement.
The body cameras will automatically start recording when officers turn on their sirens or draw their TASER or their firearm. Officers will be required to manually turn their cameras on when they’re dispatched to a call, pulling someone over, stopping a pedestrian or asking for consent to search someone.
The cameras are required under the settlement agreement between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice over police use of force against people in mental health crises. Federal prosecutors have largely left the details to the city and the police union, while reserving the right to intervene if they don’t like the agreed-upon policies.
The Justice Department told the city in November 2021 that officers should not be allowed to view any footage before writing use-of-force reports. In a letter sent last week, the DOJ attorneys overseeing the settlement agreement tentatively signed off on the proposed policies but noted they didn’t satisfy all of their initial requirements.
More than a dozen people gave testimony before the vote, with some supporters reading from a prepared script sent out by The Portland Party, a political action committee that supports “pragmatic Portland Metro area candidates and ballot measures.”
“The current proposal for the body worn camera pilot program that includes caveats for use of force incidents sounds reasonable to me compared to programs in other cities,” two speakers said. “It aligns with other jurisdictions in Multnomah County as to not be confusing to jurors, prosecutors, judges, etc. when trying cases from all over the county in Multnomah County court system.”
Kristin Olson, an attorney in Portland who went on Fox Business last month to discuss rising crime in Portland, said police accountability is a cornerstone of our democracy.
“This ordinance brings accountability and brings us up to par with the rest of the big cities in the United States and the State of Oregon,” Olson said.
Data shows violent crime is dropping in Portland.
Critics expressed concern that the camera policies weren’t made public until last week, depriving the public of an opportunity to provide feedback. Marc Poris, a member of police accountability group Portland Copwatch, said the process deviated from what has been the routine for years.
“This policy, however, came with a warning that due to legal issues, the public only had one chance to weigh in,” Poris said. “[The Police Bureau] said there was a lot of previous public input into this policy…but none of it addressed the actual draft being proposed.”
Poris said Wednesday night’s city council meeting was the first opportunity the public had to comment on specific elements of the policies.
Deputy City Attorney Heidi Brown said the policy is the most progressive in the state and among the most progressive in the country. But civil rights groups in the city are pushing back on components of the policies they say limit their usefulness for holding police accountable.
The Oregon Justice Resource Center, a Portland-based civil rights group, said the law requires police use of force to be reasonable based on what an officer knew when they used force.
“The officer’s explanation as to why they used force should be based on what they perceived at the time, not what they were later able to see and hear on video,” said Amanda Lamb, an attorney at OJRC whose work focuses on law enforcement issues. “Permitting review of footage gives officers the opportunity to justify their use of force based on the video rather than on the reasons they used force at the time.”
The group also expressed concern that police will be allowed to record during “public order events,” the bureau’s term for political protests, and said that might deter some people from participating, dampening free speech.
Lamb told council members they should treat the 60-day test run as more than simply a pilot for the technology.
“Develop some performance metrics, do an evaluation, engage with the community to see how it’s being implemented,” she said. “At the end of the pilot program, reassess. Reassess the policy. Reassess the implementation. Reassess the priorities and include the community voice in that process to make tweaks to that program to make sure it’s meeting everyone’s needs.”
The Mental Health Alliance echoed concerns over allowing officers to view their footage before writing force reports and said the negotiated policies reflect the drawn-out labor negotiation rather than sound policy.
By implementing different policies for different categories of force, supervisors on scene will be responsible for determining who can view their footage and when.
“If it later turns out a supervisor has made an incorrect determination as to what level of force occurred and whether a recorded statement was required, there will be no way to ‘un-ring the bell’ and go back to record the officer’s statement,” the group wrote in a letter to City Council. “Any record of their objective judgment of the necessity for force will simply be lost for investigative purposes.”
After the 2020 racial justice protests, outside accountability groups found Portland Police supervisors failed to understand and enforce the bureau’s use of force policies. The Mental Health Alliance, a group devoted to ensuring people with mental illness are included in policy discussions, objected to empowering those same supervisors to exercise discretion as to who will be allowed to view their footage.
Both the Mental Health Alliance and the Oregon Justice Resource Center asked City Council members to pause the pilot program and policy approval process while their concerns are addressed.
At a minimum, OJRC asked that City Council clearly delineate how the pilot program will be evaluated and to move policy discussions from behind closed doors and into the public.
Before voting yes, Commissioner Dan Ryan said it’s essential the city catch up with national best practices and lauded community input. Commissioner Rene Gonzalez said the cameras are long overdue and said changes at the city council helped pave the way for the agreement, suggesting his predecessor, longtime police accountability advocate and former Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, was a roadblock to finding an agreement. Commissioner Mingus Mapps thanked the hundreds of Portlanders who participated in the decades-long discussion about how to implement body cameras and blamed previous councils for delays. Commissioner Carmen Rubio acknowledged some of the city’s goals had to be compromised but echoed Brown in praising what she described as progressive policies.
Mayor Ted Wheeler, smiling at the vote, said it was a great way to end a long day. Wheeler said being this late to body cameras is not a badge of honor but that it’s an important policy he has long fought for. He said it provides transparency, accountability and integrity to police investigations.
“In this day and age, if we are required to just have one person’s word against another, public employees don’t necessarily rank very high in the trust spectrum,” Wheeler said. “This tool, I believe will buttress the work of the Portland Police Bureau and give them confidence in the work that they’re doing.”
After the 60-day pilot, the city and the police union will meet to discuss any mutually agreeable modifications to the policies before the policies are adopted. The policies can be revisited in future contract bargaining.
Training on the cameras is expected to begin in August, and they will be fielded to select officers soon after.