Community Members Urge Portland City Council to Establish Body Camera Policy Before Buying Them

“Blessings on your important work, but I really can’t underscore enough the need for policy,” the Rev. Mark Knutson said.

The Portland City Council on Wednesday heard public testimony from community members who urged it to delay authorizing the procurement process of body-worn cameras for police officers until the city had established parameters around who owns and may view the footage those cameras capture, among other policy issues.

“Today we oppose the solicitation and purchase of body-worn cameras without a fully developed body-worn camera policy in place,” said Mariana Garcia on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon. “The Police Bureau’s recent emergency request for the City Council to approve [the solicitation process] for a body-worn camera system undermines the city’s commitment to community.”

For nearly a decade, the city has tried and failed to equip Portland Police Bureau officers with body cameras. But now the council has a more pressing incentive to get a pilot program up and running: Doing so would help Portland get back into compliance with the 2014 settlement agreement between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice.

During last year’s fall budget monitoring process, the City Council voted to approve $2.6 million in one-time funding to purchase 636 body-worn cameras.

Tammy Mayer, PPB’s body camera program manager, presented an overview on Wednesday of the competitive solicitation draft for body-worn cameras, called a request for proposals. She explained that the pilot program would equip 174 PPB officers assigned to the Central Precinct and the new Focused Intervention Team with body-worn cameras.

Mayer also noted the city is currently discussing body camera policy with the police union, the Portland Police Association. The parties have been in closed-door mediation since July to hash out a collective bargaining agreement. The PPA is a proponent of body-worn cameras, having first proposed implementing body camera policy in its contract last spring, as WW first reported.

Mayor Ted Wheeler reiterated that the purpose of Wednesday’s body-worn camera agenda item was to specifically address the solicitation process—not policy. But as some community members pointed out, the city’s draft RFP alluded to policy that had not yet been established.

For example, requirements 1.61 and 1.62, respectively, say that the body cameras “shall allow officers to review video while in the field” and “shall have the ability to control the volume for audio/visual playback in the field.” Implicit in those requirements is the concept of “pre-review,” which allows police officers to view body camera footage before writing reports.

Pre-review is among the most contentious issues in body-worn camera policy debates. Its proponents argue the more information officers have when writing reports, the better.

Critics, on the other hand, argue that pre-review allows the officer the benefit of hindsight to justify their actions. For example, if an officer reviews body camera footage and notices retroactively that a suspect was armed or had a broken taillight, they could then use those factors as justification for a traffic stop or use of force even though the officer wasn’t aware of those factors at the time of the interaction.

“Very importantly, as has been said many times over, policy really precedes acquisition,” the Rev. Dr. Mark Knutson, a founding member of Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform, said during the Jan. 26 council session. “The second very, very important piece is that officers not be able to view footage before their reports are fully completed.

“Blessings on your important work, but I really can’t underscore enough the need for policy,” Knutson added.

City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty on Wednesday expressed concern over policy language omitted from the RFP. She explained that one of the major objectives set forth by the U.S. DOJ is that PPB not be the owner of the body camera footage. However, she noted, the RFP does not address the solicitation of a third-party vendor that would manage the footage.

Mayer explained that decisions around third-party vendors would be made during the policy process rather than the procurement process. Hardesty said that wasn’t sufficient.

“If the RFP doesn’t start off with a third-party vendor, then we are failing ourselves. Because we’re going to end up piloting something that we don’t want, and then we’re going to end up implementing it because we bought 600-and-some cameras,” Hardesty said. “I want to know how this data gets to the [district attorney], I want to know how it gets to the training division, I want to know how this data gets to management so that corrective behavior could take place. What you’re asking for in your requirements is not consistent with what the needs are that we have for this body cam program.”

Mayer proposed adding a requirement that specifically addresses the third-party vendor aspect. “I think that’s a pretty easy addition to the RFP,” she said.

Hardesty remained skeptical. She said the RFP’s contents were reminiscent of body-worn camera policy agreed upon years ago by the PPA and then-Mayor Charlie Hales.

“We’re not in the place we were when Charlie Hales did that,” she said. “We’re in a very different place. And we have specific needs around our body camera policy and what we want it to do. In my mind, the only reason to invest millions of dollars in a body cam program is to ensure that we have an accountable police force. And that is what the DOJ is requesting we do.”

Wheeler reiterated that the City Council would have oversight of policy decisions.

“Ultimately, [the vendor policy] is up to us. And I realize there’s a lot of machinations here,” he said. “I assure you that there is nothing that will happen quickly with regard to policy, and all of it has to come back to City Council before we settle on any policy related to body-worn cameras. That is my commitment to all of you. But I do encourage us to move forward on this RFP as expeditiously as possible.”

During public testimony, Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch urged the City Council to delay moving forward with the pilot project until the parameters have been established, especially the policies relating to pre-review and data ownership.

“This particular problem leaves an agency that has revealed in the past few months to have members who release false information about a council member for political reasons, ask community members not to vote for that council member or for the district attorney, and who hid the existence of the violent and prejudiced training slides in charge of important data,” Handelman said, likely referring to three PPB officers’ involvement in leaking false information about Hardesty, comments made by the bureau’s East Precinct commander during a neighborhood association meeting last year, and the PowerPoint training presentation that garnered nationwide scrutiny earlier this month.

“But the broader problem is that the city is proposing to jump into a $2.6 million pilot project before the parameters of the program have been defined,” he continued. “In other words, until there is a comprehensive policy, the program should be put on hold again.”

The City Council is expected to vote on authorizing the procurement process Feb. 9.