Body Cameras for Portland Cops Are on the Bargaining Table. But Don’t Expect to See the Debate—or the Footage.

Within 24 hours of its request, the proposal says, the Police Bureau would have to furnish the union with body camera footage.

image (22) Portland police rush protesters. (Justin Yau)

Five days after a Portland police officer shot and killed Robert Delgado in Lents Park, the cops’ union showed up at an April 21 collective bargaining session armed with a proposal to record officers’ actions with cameras strapped to their uniforms.

It appears to be the first time the Portland Police Association has attempted to bargain body-worn camera use into its contract during formal negotiations.

That’s tantalizing to city officials: After all, body camera footage has provided decisive evidence in several high-profile police shootings elsewhere in the country, while Portlanders, in just a recent example, still know very little about the decisions that led police to kill Delgado over a month ago. The Portland Police Bureau is the only police department among the 75 largest municipal law enforcement agencies nationwide that doesn’t use body cameras, KGW-TV recently found.

Portland is an outlier in another sense. It’s the city’s police union pushing for the cameras—and it’s progressive elected officials who remain skeptical.

One possible reason: The fine print of the PPA proposal makes it clear most citizens won’t regularly get to view the camera footage.

Guess who will? The Portland Police Association.

Through a public records request, WW obtained the detailed body camera draft submitted by PPA alongside contract change proposals for the city’s review.

What the union’s plan suggests: The Police Bureau—not the city—would own the footage. Barring a court order, the only entity with authority to review the body camera footage at will besides official investigators would be the PPA. Within 24 hours of its request, the proposal says, the Police Bureau would have to furnish the union with the footage.

On one level, that’s logical: The PPA represents officers accused of wrongdoing and wants access to any relevant evidence. But several observers tell WW the demand is unusual—and beyond the scope of what most cities give their police unions.

“If I was the victim, would I get my video within 24 hours? I doubt it,” says Juan Chavez, a Portland civil rights lawyer. “This is like reading every best practices manual and doing the opposite. I get it: This is bargaining. You shoot for the moon and fall far short. But it’s highlighting what they think is in their best interests, and it is not the same as the public interest. It’s against it, frankly.”

PPA executive director Daryl Turner did not respond to a request for comment.

And that’s only one of several details in the PPA proposal that may become deal breakers for the Portland City Council. Others include letting officers review footage of their actions before preparing reports or testifying “in any forum,” and requiring consent of the officer depicted before releasing footage to the media.

But it’s difficult to say how appetizing the union’s plan might be to city commissioners. In a rich irony, the discussion of transparency is happening behind closed doors.

The City Council met May 18 in executive session to discuss PPA contract negotiations. Citing one of the few exemptions in Oregon’s Public Meetings Law, the city barred media from attending because the discussions regarded labor negotiations.

And like Tuesday’s meeting, what happened during the April 21 bargaining session is largely under wraps. Every other session, including the one April 21, is held behind closed doors. Further, commissioners won’t talk about the proposal.

Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who has criticized police use of body-worn cameras as a sham for much of her tenure on the City Council, said in a statement this week that she is open to “hearing any proposals in good faith.”

In fact, the entire City Council, including Mayor Ted Wheeler, said the City Attorney’s Office advised commissioners not to publicly discuss their opinions on body cameras. All five offices agreed to issue the following joint statement to reporters seeking comment:

“The Portland Police Association made a proposal recently that included the issue of Police Body Worn Cameras during bargaining between the City of Portland and the Portland Police Association. The City’s position on body worn cameras will be reserved for the bargaining table and council will have no further comment at this time.”

Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch says the mayor and commissioners’ inability to openly discuss their opinions about body cameras could be cause for concern.

“That’s kind of a very scary precedent in general, [that] any policy the PPA decides that they want to try to say is mandatory for bargaining, they can just stop public discussion on that topic,” Handelman said.

The city’s inability for nearly a decade to equip its officers with body cameras—and its inability to talk about it—is another demonstration of how much police power lies within the union contract.

In 2016, the city agreed to a conceptual draft policy with the union on cameras but never formally adopted the policy. It was then further derailed by pandemic-related budget cuts, which sheared 5.6% off of all general fund budgets, including $1.8 million that had been allocated for body-worn cameras in the fiscal 2016-17 budget.

Funding remains an issue. The Police Bureau estimated in its budget policy review last year that it would cost $2.9 million to implement the program and $1.8 million a year to operate it. It also wrote that, should body cameras be adopted, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office might need to increase staffing levels “to respond to the increased volume of video evidence.”

On top of that, the PPA has proposed that any officer who agrees to wear a camera would get an automatic 2% pay raise.

But it’s not just money that could derail an agreement.

WW’s review of the PPA proposal shows the union continues to insist on a provision that doomed body-worn cameras when they were previously discussed in 2016: letting officers review the footage before writing a report or testifying to investigators or a grand jury about their use of force.

The proposal further states that officers involved in or who witness deadly force, in-custody deaths or “other critical incidents” are allowed to review body camera footage from their own and other officers’ cameras prior to making an official statement or writing a report.

“They shall also have the option and reasonable opportunity to view any other body-worn camera recordings from other officers that captured the involved officer’s image or voice during the underlying incident and/or events that are subject to the investigation,” the proposal says. “A viewing will occur in a secure and private location in the presence of the member’s legal representative before their interview and before giving a statement.”

The PPA proposal states that “all data, images, video recordings, and metadata captured, recorded, or otherwise produced by the equipment” would be the property of the Portland Police Bureau.

“Body-worn camera recordings may be used for media releases and public relations with consent from the officers depicted within the videos,” the proposal says. “If any recorded digital media unreasonably violates a person’s privacy or sense of dignity it should not be publicly released unless disclosure is required by law or by order of the court.”

Body camera policies vary across American cities. It appears that few allow the police union such exclusive and immediate access to the footage.

Chavez says the bureau’s ownership of the footage and the requirement to hand it over within 24 hours to the PPA could allow the union to curate a legal strategy that meshes with whatever was captured on the camera. “They’re looking out for their own,” he says.

Jann Carson, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, says allowing officers to view the footage prior to writing a report or testifying could hinder accountability.

“The ACLU strongly believes officers should not review footage before making a statement or report,” Carson says. “Body cameras will fail as an accountability and transparency tool if the policy makes it too burdensome for the public to access body camera footage. It will also be important for the public to have access to metadata and other information associated with storage.”

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