City Officials May Be Willing to Compromise on Letting Cops Get a Sneak Preview of Body-Worn Camera Footage

It could end a decadelong standoff, unless a judge disagrees.

Portland's bitter, decade-long fight over body-worn cameras may be nearing its denouement. (Brian Burk)

There are signs Portland’s elected officials and its police union are willing to compromise on body-worn camera policy, WW has learned.

Rollout of the cameras has been delayed for years by a tug of war between the union, which wants officers to be allowed to view the footage before writing their reports, and activists, who believe misuse of the technology would undermine efforts to hold officers accountable.

The result: Portland remains the last major city in the nation not to strap cameras on its cops.

Although such cameras have produced shocking footage of police abuses across the country, research studies have been equivocal about their benefits. The city’s most vocal skeptic of body cameras, former City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, once called the devices “an expensive, false solution.”

At the time, Hardesty sat on the Portland City Council. She later changed her stance on cameras—agreeing they were needed, so long as the Portland Police Bureau didn’t control the footage. But she was voted out last year amid widespread voter frustration about public safety, including a spike in homicides. Voters replaced her with City Commissioner Rene Gonzalez, who has shown far more sympathy for the cops.

“I sense that there is a historic opportunity to end this stalemate,” he tells WW. “The union has indicated a willingness to compromise. I am willing to do so and have encouraged my colleagues on council to do so as well.”

The Portland Police Association declined to comment on the ongoing negotiations.

Publicly, the two sides are far apart. The union wants officers to be allowed to “pre-review” footage prior to writing reports. The city and the U.S. Department of Justice say that’s a bad idea after officers use force.

The dispute is complicated by the involvement of the Justice Department, which sued the city a decade ago over its use of excessive force against people with mental illness, winning a settlement agreement that grants judicial oversight of the bureau’s policies. Last year, the DOJ proposed a body-worn camera policy with limitations on pre-review similar to the city’s official stance on the matter.

Former U.S. Attorney for Oregon Billy Williams laid out the reasoning for such a policy back in 2016, when he told The Oregonian he was concerned that pre-review could “result in officers, whether intentionally or otherwise, modifying their descriptions of the force event to match what they saw on the recording rather than what they recall.”

Because the city is operating under a settlement agreement with the DOJ, it’s not clear what would happen if it reached a deal with the PPA that U.S. District Judge Michael Simon ultimately rejects. In a February hearing, Simon was skeptical that officers needed pre-review, calling “an officer’s unrefreshed subjective recollection…a useful piece of data.”

The city and the PPA presented their final offers during contract negotiations in February, and an arbitrator will hold hearings sometime this summer. If the arbitrator sides with the PPA, some fear it could trigger a yearslong court battle. In February, the union’s attorney said it would continue trying to find “a mutually agreeable program rather than having to roll the dice, if you will, in contested litigation.”

With Hardesty gone, Carmen Rubio is now the city’s most progressive commissioner. She was the only member of Portland’s City Council to respond directly when asked by WW under what circumstances she thought pre-review should be allowed.

“Any incident that involves an injury should not be allowed for pre-review,” she said in a statement to WW. “I remain interested and open to the results of those discussions in bargaining.”

Rubio’s answer—drawing injuries as the line in the sand, rather than the broader concept of force—differs from the city’s official position, and offers a hint of what a potential compromise could look like.

It bears a resemblance to San Francisco’s policy, which requires an additional statement by officers prior to reviewing footage of an officer-involved shooting or an in-custody death. That policy is similar to those of other progressive cities.

The City by the Bay managed to push that policy through in 2020 following two and half years of negotiation with its police union.

Advocates say rushing into a compromise is not an acceptable solution, particularly in a city like Portland that is already being scrutinized for its police force’s failings. “The DOJ has been clear: Body-worn cameras only have as much value as the policy behind them,” says Eben Hoffer, legislative lead at the Mental Health Alliance.

But other Portlanders say they’ve waited long enough. Activists’ and the DOJ’s “position would put Portland out of step with most similar cities and has, predictably, set up program implementation for failure or, at best, years of delays,” wrote Nathan Castle, a member of the citizen committee responsible for monitoring the city’s progress toward implementing the DOJ’s recommendations.

The city has until this summer to broker a compromise with the union before the issue is sent to the purgatory of arbitration. If it fails, and the PPA and DOJ decide to take the issue to court, a process that has dragged on for more than a decade could extend for several more years.

Freeze Frame

Portland cops first tested body-worn cameras in 2011. Here’s what’s happened in the dozen years since.

2011: Portland Police Bureau tests body-worn cameras.

2013: City Council sets aside nearly $1 million for pilot project.

2014: Judge recommends the city buy the cameras after the U.S. Department of Justice settles an excessive force lawsuit with the city.

2016: Portland, with police union support, releases a draft policy to immense public criticism.

2020: City drops program from budget amid widespread cuts.

2022: City greenlights $2.6 million program, selects Axon as vendor. Most of Portlanders surveyed don’t support pre-review.

2023: City and union arrive at impasse over pre-review policy. Federal judge gives the city seven months to come to an agreement.

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