Letter from MHA to Portland City Council – proposed body-worn camera policy

Members of Portland City Council.

Since the idea of police officers using body-worn cameras was introduced by the City in 2018, the Mental Health Alliance has asked there be a policy in place to guide both purchase and implementation, and the policy be informed by community engagement.  Members of the Alliance appreciate the city providing the proposed preliminary body-worn camera policy negotiated with the Portland Police Association, as well as the Department of Justice’s preliminary approval of the policy. We thank the parties for their work to find a compromise solution that avoids further delays.

But this is a first draft – not a completed document. More the result of a tedious labor negotiation than durable policy. It focuses on one aspect of a policy; how police officers may view camera footage after hurting someone, and other mechanisms to protect officers from exposure and public accountability. Protecting officers from unwarranted exposure is a vital, worthy goal and pre-report viewing has been a sticking point. But fairness to officers is just one goal among many.

Our request is that your decision on this agenda item be postponed.

A complete body-worn camera policy for Portland should promote many other benefits, including verification of police reports and data, improvement of the tens of thousands of contacts that occur for every lethal use of force, support of police supervision and training, education of citizens about the real challenges that police face and the good work they do, support for existing and planned police review mechanisms, and transparency through independent research and journalism.

The City is about to start collecting hundreds of thousands of hours of video every year. But it has written a policy that worries mostly about just tens of hours of this vast resource. The police union is just one of many organizations and voices who have legitimate stakes in body-worn camera policy and ideas to contribute. The City’s policy-making job is not completed if only the police union is consulted and satisfied.

With respect to the accountability aspects that the current policy does address, as we have made clear elsewhere, the Mental Health Alliance opposes ANY pre-review of body camera footage of use of force incidents by officers before writing their reports. This is the best practice to ensure reports of use of force are based on examination of the reasonableness of the use of force at the time the force was used, as required by Graham v. Connor, rather than an effort by the officer to fit their narrative to evidence reviewed after the fact.

Because the policy agreed upon by the City and the Portland Police Association diverges from this core value of police accountability, we cannot support it. However, in light of the fact the Department of Justice agreed to the policy pending the outcome of the City’s 60-day test, and in the interest of being constructive partners to the Court and the Department of Justice, here are specific questions and concerns we hope the Department of Justice considers when analyzing the effectiveness of the new policy in remedying the City’s long-time noncompliance with the settlement agreement.

  1. There are scant details as to how the Bureau, the City, or the Department of Justice will judge the effectiveness of the new body-worn cameras policies after the 60 day test. What will happen after 60 days?  Will there be a pause to evaluate the test? Or will cameras continue to be used without any real evaluation or community input?  What data will be collected, and what key performance measures will be evaluated? Will there be an opportunity for public feedback as to the effectiveness of the policies? Will there be any mechanism for extending the test period if any of the parties determine that sixty days has been insufficient to make a determination regarding the effectiveness of the new policies? By what measure will this test be determined a success – or failure? Who will be the judge of these factors? These are all questions that we think it would be appropriate for this Council to ask and the city attorneys and have answered prior to accepting this proposal.

  2. Per this agreement, the most serious category of force usage has the least clear guidance for officers who are witnesses to it. Under after a sub-lethal Category II force incident, involved and witness officers are required to provide an account to their supervisors which is recorded on body-worn cameras. However, under, an officer who is witness to a lethal Category I use of force event is not required to provide a verbal statement OR write a report before reviewing their body camera footage. This can be overruled by the officer’s supervisor, although there is no guidance provided in the agreement as to what criteria the supervisor should use to evaluate the decision whether or not to compel such a statement. There is also no guidance provided in the agreement as to whether or not such a statement will be recorded.

  3. Many of these policies rely upon police supervisors to make determinations regarding the level of force used and to make judgment calls regarding the necessity for a recorded statement to be taken. If it later turns out a supervisor has made an incorrect determination as to what level of force occurred and whether a recorded statement was required, there will be no way to “un-ring the bell” and go back to record the officer’s statement; any record of their objective judgment of the necessity for force will simply be lost for investigative purposes.

Both the Department of Justice and the Compliance Officer/Community Liaison have repeatedly found the City of Portland out of compliance with the settlement agreement specifically due to the failure of supervisors within the Bureau to understand and enforce directives around use of force (see paragraphs 70, 73, 84, 116, 129, 169). Leaving supervisors whose work has repeatedly been found inadequate with complete, unreviewed discretion over when officers are and are not required to make recorded statements following a use of force is unlikely to be effective.

  1. There seems to have been little to no effort by the City or the Department of Justice to involve the actual people of Portland or their various partner organizations in the drafting or approval of this policy. As written, it runs directly contrary to the recommendations of the Compliance Officer/Community Liaison, the Albina Ministerial Alliance, and the Mental Health Alliance (and the Department of Justice itself), as well as the overwhelming consensus of the feedback received by the city in public meetings.

Additionally, the Portland Police Accountability Commission, which is currently tasked with designing the settlement-mandated civilian oversight system which will ultimately make disciplinary decisions involving alleged officer misconduct, was not consulted at any stage of this discussion as to how the new body-worn camera policy would fit into the system that they are designing Other councils organized by the city to inform the police bureau about community concerns, such as the Training Advisory Council, the Portland Committee on Community-Engaged Policing, the Focused Intervention Team Community Oversight Group, the Behavioral Health Unit Advisory Committee, or the Police Bureauwide Advisory Committee, also were not consulted.

We could continue the list, and others will, so our suggestion is that this proposal not proceed today or until these and other questions are fully answered.

It is our hope the Department of Justice will keep a close and critical eye on their roll-out, and that with further input from Judge Simon, the department, the amici, and the community, we can move towards a durable body-worn camera policy that legitimately improves public safety and trust.

Members of the Mental Health Alliance

Amanda J Marshall, JD
Patrick Nolen
Meredith Mathis
Mark Schorr, LPC, CADCI
Jason Renaud
Michael Hopcroft
Rochelle Silver, PhD
Mary-Margaret Wheeler-Weber, MA
Mark Chasse, JD
Javonnie Shearn
KC Lewis, JD
Jonathan Brown, MPP, PhD
Eben Hoffer, MFA
Sandra Chisholm, MPA
Rabbi Ariel Stone
Jane Remfert
Beatrix Li
Dave Boyer, MS, JD
Aimee Sukol, JD MA MS Ed
Brett Foster

Representatives in court – Juan Chavez, JD, Franz Bruggemeier, JD, Amanda Lamb, JD

Mental Health Alliance – on the record

Amicus Mental Health Alliance’s Body-Worn Camera Policy Position – United States v. City of Portland, October 2021

Mental Health Alliance review of body-worn camera policies in other comparable US cities, February 2023

Say ‘no’ to pre-review of body-worn camera footage, March 2023

Letter to City Council on body-worn cameras, February 2022

Town hall focuses on Portland police body cameras, December 2021

Portland needs policies for body-worn cameras before purchasing, November 2021

About the Mental Health Alliance

The Mental Health Alliance amplifies the voices of people with mental illness, trauma, addiction, and alcoholism in legal and legislative public policy discussions. The Mental Health Alliance was formed in 2018 to join the continuing Federal lawsuit, United States v. City of Portland as an amicus curiae or “friend of the court.”

Organizations which represent the interests of people with mental illness and have long participated in efforts to reduce police use of force used against people with mental illness – Disability Rights Oregon, the Oregon Justice Resource Center, the Portland Interfaith Clergy Resistance, and the Mental Health Association of Portland, joined together to form the Alliance.

More about the Alliance can be found on our website at http://www.mentalhealthalliance.org of contact us at info@mentalhealthalliance.org.