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Report: Justice Department recommends Portland PD use bodycams

Portland is the only city in the top 75 U.S. cities that doesn’t use bodycams, according to the DOJ


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By Maxine Bernstein

PORTLAND, Ore. — U.S. Justice Department lawyers on Monday sent a letter to Portland’s city attorney and police chief recommending all uniformed patrol officers, sergeants and any officers regardless of rank who are part of tactical, traffic or crowd-control operations should wear body cameras.

The letter came as the city remains in negotiations with the police union over the parameters of equipping officers with body cameras — one of the steps the city can take to return to compliance with its 2014 settlement with the federal government over police use of excessive force.

A federal judge last week urged lawyers from the city, Justice Department, police union and two community-based groups to return to mediation to agree on a policy governing use of the cameras.

Portland is the only city among the top 75 cities by 2020 U.S. Census data that doesn’t have body cameras on its officers, according to the Justice Department.

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The Justice Department’s proposed not only the scope of who should wear the cameras but when they should be used, saying they should be automatically activated when an officer draws a gun or Taser or initiates a car chase.

They also should be activated when officers are dispatched to a call for service and engaged in any law enforcement activity with a member of the public, excluding sexual assault investigations or death notifications, the federal lawyers wrote.

The topic of greatest contention is whether officers can preview camera footage before giving a statement or interview to an investigator.

The Justice Department recommended: When an officer uses force, the officer shall not review any of the recordings before reporting the force and completing all other reports or interviews associated with the incident.

Officers who use deadly force or are involved in a death in custody case shall not view any of the footage until they give an interview to an investigator and only after they get permission from the local prosecutor, the federal lawyers suggested. Local prosecutors may not, for example, want an officer to view the footage before testifying before a grand jury.

The proposal draws from policies used by Baltimore and Atlanta police, according to Justice Department officials.

In some cases, they said officers could review a recording after completing their required reports and interviews and prepare separate supplemental reports with additional information.

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The camera footage and recordings should be maintained by a third-party vendor under contract to the city, but the city would retain ownership and control of all body camera footage as required by state law, the letter recommended.

Under the proposal, police supervisors would have the authority to review recordings for any lawful management purpose, and the recordings could be used to evaluate officer performance and for training purposes. Officers would be subject to discipline for violating an approved policy.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jared D. Hager and civil rights senior trial attorney R. Jonas Geissler suggested the city seek public input as soon as possible and before the Police Bureau adopts a policy.

The terms of a city policy on the cameras “should adhere substantially” to the principles described in the letter, the attorneys wrote.

The Police Bureau for the last couple of years has held public forums to collect public input on the proposed use of body cameras without ever buying the equipment.

Hager and Geissler also shared their letter with U.S. Magistrate Judge Stacie F. Beckerman, who is leading the mediation sessions between the city, the Justice Department, the Portland Police Association, and the community groups that have been granted friend of the court status in the settlement case, the Mental Health Alliance and the Albina Ministerial Alliance’s Coalition for Justice and Police Reform.

The police union remains in collective bargaining with the city on a contract. It supports equipping officers with the cameras but had proposed a policy that would allow officers to review body camera videos before writing their reports, contrary to the Justice Department’s advice.

“We understand that the City may bargain certain aspects of a (body worn camera) policy with its represented employees,” the Justice Department lawyers wrote. “If the City does so, or becomes a party to interest arbitration or a labor-practices action or other challenge, we expect the City to provide the United States notice and keep us apprised of the status of any such negotiation or challenge.”

The Justice Department in April issued a formal notice to the city that it had failed to meet key reforms under the settlement, citing inappropriate police use and management of force during 2020′s racial justice protests, inadequate training and subpar supervision by higher-ups.

The city has agreed to most of the remedies sought by federal lawyers to bring the city back into compliance with the 2014 settlement reached after federal investigators found Portland police used excessive force against people with mental illness.

Some community activists who have been parties to the settlement have cited concerns that the latest amendments moving forward don’t include a written policy on how the cameras will be used. They want it spelled out in the court record that the Police Bureau will bar officers from previewing the camera footage before giving a statement to investigators after using deadly force.

U.S. District Judge Michael H. Simon sent all parties to the settlement back to mediation to try to find consensus around a body-worn camera policy. He did not give those involved a time line on when to report back on their progress.

Sgt. Aaron Schmautz, the president of the Portland Police Association, said the union doesn’t believe that the proposed policy presented by the Justice Department represents best practices.

The union is working toward a policy that “best protects our members and best protects the public,” and mirrors that of other large police agencies, Schmautz said.

He declined to discuss the specific provisions. But regarding the initial union contract proposal to allow officers to view footage ahead of interviews, Schmautz said, “It’s important when officers are documenting and reporting on an event, that they’re utilizing all the resources available to make sure those reports are complete and comprehensive.”

Amanda J. Marshall , an attorney in Clackamas County and a member of the Mental Health Alliance, wrote a guest column in The Oregonian/OregonLive recently, urging the city council to halt the purchase of body-worn cameras “until we have clear policies in place for how those devices and their recordings will be used.”

Barring that, she urged the Justice Department to refuse to enter into any agreement with the city that requires the use of body-worn cameras “without policies which precisely describe operations, recognize privacy rights, and protect civil liberties.’’

The City Council is set to vote Wednesday on the mayor’s proposal to dedicate $2.6 million to equip Portland police with body worn cameras as part of the city’s fall budget adjustment process. The $2.6 million, according to the mayor’s strategic innovations director Sam Adams, would amount to a”down payment to at least start the purchase process for equipment.”

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