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Portland PD union, city reach agreement on body-worn camera policy

The move ends Portland’s status of being the largest municipal police agency in the nation without body-worn cameras


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By Maxine Bernstein

PORTLAND — The city and Portland police union announced late Thursday that they have reached agreement on a policy to equip officers with body-worn cameras, likely ending Portland’s status as having the largest municipal police agency in the nation without the cameras.

The U.S Department of Justice has given condition approval to apply the policy to a two-month pilot project outfitting officers from one patrol precinct and a specialized gun violence team with body cameras.

The City Council must first approve the policy and is expected to consider it Wednesday afternoon.

The compromise averts what was expected to be a protracted, monthslong arbitration process that would have extended what already has been years of delays in having officers wear cameras.

The sticking point has been whether to allow officers who use deadly force to view camera footage before writing their reports or being interviewed by investigators.

Under the negotiated policy obtained by The Oregonian/OregonLive, officers who use deadly force will not get to view their camera video until after they provide internal affairs investigators with an audio-recorded initial statement within 48 hours. This will also apply to officers when someone dies in their custody.

During that statement, officers must describe the call, what they observed, the threat they faced, any warnings or de-escalation tactics they used, the force used and if they provided medical aid.

Internal affairs investigators also will not be allowed to view the body camera footage before an officer’s initial statement.

After an initial statement, there will be a break in the internal affairs interview, allowing the investigators and the officer involved and the officer’s lawyer to view the camera footage separately in different rooms.

“Within a reasonable time,” the policy says, internal investigators can continue with the recorded interview and ask the officer to clarify any discrepancies between the initial statement and what the camera footage shows.

Officers cannot face discipline for any allegation of wrongdoing based on a difference or discrepancy between the initial statement and what the footage shows unless the city can prove the officer was being dishonest or trying to deceive investigators, according to a letter of agreement reached with the union.

The compromise policy also states that the Police Bureau “acknowledges the limitations of officer perceptions and memory in stressful events, along with the limitations of video evidence.”

Officers who use deadly force also may be asked by a supervisor, before reviewing their body camera footage, to provide an “on-scene, compelled public safety statement,” according to the policy.

Officers who witness the use of police deadly force will be able to review their body-camera footage before providing a statement or writing a police report.

For force that results in serious physical injury, hospitalization or disability, both officers who used force and those who witnessed the force must provide a full account of what occurred to a supervisor at the scene before viewing camera footage. The on-scene account will be recorded on a body camera. Afterward, the officers can view their body camera footage and prepare a police report.

Officers who use or witness force causing a complaint of pain or a non-serious physical injury or use a less-lethal weapon that doesn’t cause serious physical injury also must provide an on-scene statement to a supervisor before viewing their body camera footage and writing their report. Their on-scene statements won’t be recorded.

The four-page letter of agreement accompanying the policy says investigators will give officers who use force written instructions before any interview. The instructions stress that video evidence has its limitations but is intended to assist an officer’s memory. “Simply because your perceptions are different than the video does not mean you are lying,” the instruction says.

Justice Department lawyers reviewed the compromise and provided their conditional approval for a two-month pilot project. They reserved their authority to review and evaluate any final policy adopted once the pilot is completed and before all officers are outfitted with cameras.

They said the policy “meets some but not all” of the guidelines that they had recommended.

“However, we see value in the compromise,” the federal lawyers wrote to the city.

“In particular, the proposed directive avoids the risk of litigation in state and federal court, potentially conflicting orders, and the resulting delay in implementing the BWC program,” they wrote.

U.S. District Judge Michael H. Simon, who is overseeing a settlement between the federal government and the city on police use of force, had voiced support for the technology at a hearing nine years ago. Last April, Simon approved an amendment to the settlement that required the city to outfit officers with cameras and adopt an appropriate policy governing their use.

City attorneys Thursday night sent copies of the proposed policy to all parties to the ongoing settlement case, including friends of the court, such as the Albina Ministerial Alliance’s Coalition for Justice and Police Reform and the Mental Health Alliance.

Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office released a statement announcing only that an agreement on body cameras had been reached but no details.

It was “the result of positive collaboration between the City and its police officers,” the statement said. The Police Bureau has 808 sworn officers. The agreement is between the city and the Portland Police Association, which represents rank-and-file officers, sergeants, detectives and forensic criminalists.

“This policy has been a top priority for Mayor Wheeler’s administration for years, and he and his fellow Commissioners are pleased to have achieved this milestone,” the statement said. “The City and the PPA have long agreed that body worn cameras are an important tool for supporting and enhancing public trust in law enforcement. It was important to all parties that our policy was consistent with common practice, supported the unique needs of our city, and addressed privacy and transparency concerns highlighted by the community. It was also vital that the policy is usable for officers and supported by science.”

Officers from Central Precinct and the Focused Intervention Team, the unit formed in January 2022 to help curb gun violence and respond to shootings, will be equipped with the cameras during the pilot project. The bureau expects to use $3.2 million that has been set aside for the body camera pilot program this year. It has selected a vendor, Axon, for the equipment.

The policy urged by the federal Justice Department was stricter. It recommended that officers not review any of the camera recordings before reporting their use of deadly force and completing all other reports or interviews associated with the incident.

Dennis Rosenbaum, the city-hired consultant tracking police compliance with the federal settlement, said it’s important that officers not view the camera footage before they give an initial statement because their use of force should be evaluated based “on what the officer knew at the time, not what they learned later.”

Under the negotiated policy, the Police Bureau’s records division will have the authority to copy, share or publicly release the body camera recordings and manage public requests for the footage. The footage will remain the property of the city and not owned by third-party vendors, though recordings shall be stored with a third-party vendor, the policy says.

The bureau shall release body worn camera recordings of deadly force after a grand jury review is concluded. If no grand jury is convened, the release will be determined by the district attorney, according to the policy. However, the police chief may release footage sooner “when in the public interest,” the policy says.

A clause that drew questions from federal Judge Simon earlier this year remains in the negotiated policy: For officers’ annual performance evaluations, supervisors are to randomly review just three of the officer’s body-worn camera footage per year.

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