May 10, 2023 - News

Portland police will pilot body cameras this summer

Illustration of a police hat with a badge shaped like a video camera icon.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Portland Police Bureau officers will wear body cameras for the first time ever starting this summer, under a two-month pilot program that is expected to be fully implemented next spring.

Why it matters: After a decade-long negotiation between the bureau and the union, more than 100 officers will use body cameras for 60 days starting in August — making Portland one of the last cities of its size to implement the devices used for police transparency and accountability.

  • Discussions over body cameras started in 2012 after the U.S. Department of Justice filed a civil lawsuit against the city, alleging that police engaged in a pattern of "unnecessary or excessive force" against people who had or were perceived to have mental illness.

Context: The primary disagreement between city attorneys and the police union was whether officers could review body camera footage before writing an incident report after using force.

  • After a two-year negotiation, a compromise on the issue was reached last month. The police union wanted officers to have the ability to review body camera footage before writing a report, while the city wanted officers to write their reports before viewing footage.
  • Under the new policy, officers must give a recorded statement to a supervisor before reviewing body camera footage to write a report if they've used force against someone with a mental illness or someone in handcuffs, or if they've injured someone.
  • In cases where police use low levels of force (like pointing a gun at someone without firing or using physical restraints or pepper spray), officers can give a non-recorded statement to a supervisor before reviewing body camera footage to write a report.
  • Officers who kill someone will not be able to review footage until giving a statement to internal affairs officers.

What they're saying: After the City Council approved the body camera policy on April 26, Mayor Ted Wheeler said it "will buttress the work of the Portland Police Bureau and give them confidence in the work that they’re doing."

The other side: "Our concern has always been that the cameras are more being used for prosecution and/or surveillance of community members than they are for holding officers accountable for misconduct," Dan Handelman, a founding member of police watchdog group Portland Copwatch, told Axios in an email.

  • Handelman's sentiment was echoed by Amanda Lamb, an attorney for the Oregon Justice Resource Center, who said the policy — which also enables officers to use body cameras during political protests — may deter people from exercising public free speech if they know they're being recorded.

Details: Officers from the Focused Intervention Team, which launched in 2022 as a response to growing gun violence, and Central Precinct will be the first to pilot the body cameras.

  • The pilot program will run from Aug. 21 to Oct. 19, and afterward members of the police union and city leaders will meet to discuss potential modifications to policies.
  • Body camera implementation will be rolled out throughout the bureau — to over 300 patrol officers — starting in April 2024.

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