When he started renegotiating the Portland police union’s contract six months ago, Mayor Charlie Hales wasn’t thinking about body cameras.
The city had a more urgent problem: close to 80 vacancies at the Police Bureau. Cops were retiring, and the city couldn’t hire people fast enough to replace them.
The issue, Hales said, was pay.
“There are agencies that are offering salaries well above what we pay in Portland,” he said.
So the mayor sat down with the police union, and they struck a deal. The contract city and labor negotiators worked out gives police officers pay increases for each of the next three years. In exchange, the union agreed to get rid of red tape that made it hard for investigators to interview police in the first few days an officer involved shooting.
Now the Portland City Council needs to vote on the labor agreement. But while Hales is pleased with the contract, most of the people who came to testify about it at a hearing last week were more concerned about another issues: body cameras.
Portland Police don't wear body cameras right now, though they’ll probably start soon. The agreement the city reached with the union has 13 provisions. No. 3 on the list is a very narrow statement about body cameras.
A few controversial lines spell out what happens if someone accuses an officer of misconduct. The officer is allowed to watch body camera video before he gives a statement to investigators, as long as he watched the video to write a report.
"Say if I’m out on a call, I have my body camera on, and my body camera is recording the call," said Daryl Turner, president of the Portland Police Association. "I go back to the precinct, I look at my body camera video to write my report, I get all the specifics I need. If I’ve viewed that to write my report, I can also view that prior to my internal affairs interview.”
There is a big, important exception out in the agreement: In cases in which an officer fatally shoots someone, he or she wouldn't necessarily be allowed to view body camera footage.
From Turner’s perspective, the fact that the city is agreeing to this isn’t that big a change. He said right now, officers can read over their written reports before talking to investigators.
“If somebody disputed something I said to a dispatcher over the radio, we’re able to review our radio transmissions," he said.
But to other people, the new body camera caveat raises a red flag.
“This is a 180 from what we do right now," said Constantin Severe, who runs the city's Independent Police Review division.
He’s one of the people who interviews officers in misconduct cases. And he said reviewing body cam footage could taint an officer interview.
“Officers are not allowed to review their video prior to an interview with IPR," he said. "What we try to get down is what is an officer’s independent recollection of an event.”
Camera footage has been an issue for the city in the past. Last year, officers fatally shot a man outside a WinCo grocery store. Three officers involved in the shooting were allowed to review a surveillance video of the incident before they talked to investigators. The Department of Justice reprimanded the city, according to reporting in The Oregonian.
Severe said there’s a bigger issue, though. He's concerned that Hales didn’t vet the new labor deal with his office.
“That the city would tie IPR without our feedback or consultation at all, I think it’s objectionable and it’s frankly abhorrent,” he said.
Hales acknowledges he didn’t talk to IPR leaders during the negotiations. But he said that’s their fault.
ldquo;They never walked down the hall. They never asked to be included," he said. "Until it became a big political football in the last week or so.”
Hales said people who object to the union deal are overlooking the real gains the city has made to reform policing. Officers are getting better training on how to deal with people in crisis, for example. The number of incidents where they’re using force has gone down.
Severe agrees the police bureau has made real improvements in the past four years when it comes to training and disciplining officers. That’s why, he said, it’s so disappointing that the new agreement includes language about body cameras he fears is confusing.
“You really don’t want ambiguity," he said. "You want absolute clarity.”
But last week, alongside the new union agreement, Mayor Hales also released his first draft policy on body cameras. The draft states that officers may review any relevant video and audio when writing their police reports.