Lens on the community
Local law enforcement is making a push into the future with the implementation of new technology that will provide another lens into the interactions between officers and the people they come into contact with .
With the start of the new year, the Gresham Police Department fully rolled out body cameras for its sworn officers. There are 130 cameras with a few backup units, keeping an eye on the community and the people sworn to protect it.
"The cameras will provide better transparency with the community, be evidence in criminal cases and resolve complaints," said Capt. Claudio Grandjean, who was the project manager for implementing the cameras.
The first day the cameras were in the field was Wednesday, Dec. 4, for a training session. One month later, all shifts are utilizing the devices.
Gresham is following on the heels of other regional law enforcement agencies. Both Beaverton and Hillsboro have incorporated body cams, as has the Washington County Sheriff's Office. But within Multnomah County, not including the relatively small Portland State University campus police unit, Gresham is the first to use body cameras.
The camera model chosen is a Motorola SI 500 — a decision made after field testing four options. The touch screen device allows officers to tag videos and upload them into a central database. The device also has a removable battery that can be swapped on the fly.
Motorola is also the same vendor that provides Gresham police with their radio equipment, which means the new devices will incorporate communications systems for officers, consolidating the amount of gear needed on shift.
"This was easily the favorite," Grandjean said. "There was no question we had a clear decision for our officers."
The idea of body cams is not new to the Gresham Department. Conversations about their rollout into the community began five years ago. But costs were prohibitive and the decision was delayed. Two years ago, Gresham received a Department of Justice federal matching grant of $165,000, which kicked things back into gear.
"It was time for this department to take this step forward and use the best technology available to us," Grandjean said.
Filming the community
Gresham has spent a considerable amount of time formulating a system for how officers will use the new cameras — working with both the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office and Gresham Police Officers Association.
"We knew we couldn't implement this new system without working with the DA's office," Grandjean said. "It was important for us to include them."
Oregon law states officers must activate a camera whenever they have reasonable suspicion while in the field. But the Gresham department has decided to go one step further. Any time an officer has an interaction with a member of the community, they will turn on the camera and keep it on until the end of that contact. That means something as mundane as a traffic stop will be filmed.
"We expect our officers to use good judgment," Grandjean said.
Gresham officers will announce when they begin recording, unless doing so would jeopardize their safety or harm an investigation. Once an officer taps the button, the camera will record the 30-second interval preceeding its activation.
Stored video will be uploaded to a centralized system. Each recording will remain in the system for at least 180 days, after which any non-priority recording — like a routine traffic stop — will be deleted. Individual officers will not be able to edit or delete footage.
"The videos will belong to the department, not the officers," Grandjean said.
The DA's office will have access to the footage to use during criminal cases, as will defendants. There is also a system in place for the public to gain access to the videos. Any video a person appears in can be requested by visiting the department with a specific date and time. There is a fee attached to accessing the video.
If a community member wants to view footage of a third-party, they will have to provide a formal public records request. The department said that process requires the footage to be of "public interest."
When talking about the limitations of video, Grandjean usually finds himself discussing baseball.
Sometimes, when reviewing whether a runner was safe at base, officials must look at four or five camera angles, filmed by experts with high-powered cameras. Even then, as many sports fans know, the recordings don't provide 100% certainty in every circumstance.
But in Gresham, officers won't be thinking about capturing the perfect shot, which means the video won't be perfectly reliable. Anything from a distance can look distorted because the cameras have a wide field of vision.
The cameras are placed on an officer's chest, and people often turn their heads before their body. The video may also be obscured at times.
"Our officers may see things that the camera doesn't," Grandjean said. "A suspect's breathing could change, or maybe they will clinch their fist."
One aspect of the cameras that will be a boon for the department is the audio recordings. An example would be a complaint filed by a community member claiming an officer was rude to them. Rather than relying on a "he said/she said," administration can now review tapes to discover what happened.
There wasn't a single incident that launched the use of body cameras. In fact, the department saw the fewest number of complaints about officer conduct in 2019, as compared to all other years going back to 2009 — which is as far back as the records go.
There were 24 complaints related to the more than 75,000 calls the department responded to in 2019. That compares favorably to the 40 complaints in 2018; 49 in 2017; and 63 in 2014.
"We have a wonderful community and are grateful to them," Grandjean said. "It's a good relationship with our citizens, but we work on it continually. That is why we want the cameras."
So while the cameras may not completely solve problems of providing a non-biased, perfect view into police interactions with the community, Gresham police officers are excited to have another source of information.
"Video is not the end-all, be-all," Grandjean said. "But now we have another piece of the puzzle."
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