Nov 20, 2023 - News

Policies guiding Portland police's use of body cameras

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Last month, the Portland Police Bureau wrapped up its six-week body camera pilot program, marking the first time more than 100 of the city's officers have worn the devices — used for transparency and accountability.

Why it matters: Portland is among the last metropolitan cities of its size to implement body-worn cameras, largely due to a decadelong negotiation between the police union and city attorneys over the policies governing their use.

Context: The primary disagreement was whether officers could review footage before writing an incident report after using force.

  • A compromise was reached in April, where officers now must give a recorded statement to a supervisor before reviewing body camera footage to write a report if they've used force.

What's next: The union and city attorneys will meet again in the coming weeks to see if updates to the policy are needed before body cameras are rolled out bureau-wide starting in April 2024.

  • Police will not wear body cameras until then.

The big picture: Oregon law governs how local law enforcement agencies must use, store and retain body cameras and footage.

  • For example, agencies can't use facial recognition software.
  • Officers can turn on body cameras when they have "reasonable suspicion or probable cause to believe that a crime or violation has occurred, is occurring or will occur," and the cameras can also be used in other circumstances that serve a legitimate law enforcement purpose.
  • This means unless an officer has reasonable suspicion during a public order event (like a demonstration or protest), there is no legal reason to turn on the body camera.

Zoom in: In some instances, Portland's body-worn camera policy exceeds the state law's requirements.

  • For example, body cameras will be automatically activated whenever an officer turns on emergency vehicle lights or draws their Taser or firearm from its holster.
  • Before body camera footage is released publicly, the faces of those not involved in the incident must be blurred.
  • Portland's policy also requires operation in "buffer mode," which captures the 30 seconds before the body camera is turned on and the moments after it's turned off in case an officer forgets to turn it on and an incident quickly escalates.

There are several ways body camera footage depicting deadly force will be released publicly, per the city policy, including if the mayor or chief of police believes there is warranted public interest or at the conclusion of a grand jury investigation in an officer-involved deadly force case.

  • Additionally, footage could be released via a public records request after the district attorney weighs in.

Of note: Spokespeople for Mayor Ted Wheeler's office, the city attorney's office, and the Portland Police Association declined to comment on why Portland's policy exceeds Oregon state law, or how the policy was mediated over in closed-door sessions.

What they're saying: Dan Handelman, a police oversight advocate, told Axios via email that the city's policy doesn't go far enough in protecting members of the public and promised police accountability is "second thought."

Flashback: Conversations about Portland officers wearing them started after the U.S. Department of Justice filed a civil lawsuit against the city in 2012 alleging police engaged in a pattern of "unnecessary or excessive force."

  • One of the requirements of the DOJ settlement was for Portland's policy to include body cameras to be manually turned on when an officer is dispatched.
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