Washington County funds body-worn camera program expansion
Six months after it was first proposed, the Washington County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Dec. 15 to fund an expansion to the body-worn camera program at the Washington County Sheriff's Office.
Amending its adopted 2020-21 budget, the county will spend nearly $1.4 million over the next five years to equip 210 deputies and 129 vehicles — all those involved with patrol and civil law enforcement work — with body-worn cameras.
The money will come from the county's general fund, as well as funds from the Enhanced Sheriff's Patrol District and a recently passed public safety levy.
The Sheriff's Office expects it will take about a year to train and provide the cameras to deputies. Vehicle camera installations will continue into 2022, according to the Sheriff's Office.
The decision comes after months of community outreach by the county focused on improving racial and social justice in policing in the wake of May's police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
In June, as protests against police brutality erupted in Washington County and across the country, the Board of Commissioners authorized the appropriation of funds to expand the program. The Sheriff's Office began a born-worn camera pilot program in 2018, deploying 30 cameras to 30 deputies.
The Board of Commissioners waited to authorize spending of the funds until it had a chance to receive community feedback, particularly from marginalized groups, which resulted in a series of community listening sessions in August.
At the end of September, when the county expected to make a decision on whether to authorize the spending, the Board of Commissioners opted to seek more information after multiple commissioners expressed reluctance to spend the money.
They raised concerns about the cost of the program and whether the community supported it. The August community listening sessions showed a majority of those who participated did not want to see the program expanded.
A report on information gathered through the listening sessions was produced by the Washington County Racial Equity Collaborative, which is comprised of five local organizations providing programs related to equity.
"Through our listening sessions, we didn't hear support for these," said Commissioner Pam Treece during a Sept. 29 work session.
The comment drew criticism from board Chair Kathryn Harrington, who characterized it as an "overgeneralization" and later pointed out that some people did voice support for expanding the program.
At the listening sessions, people said the money would be better used to fund community-based services, including mental health, housing and wrap-around services, which are often seen as a means to decrease the need for police response.
Research on whether the use of body-worn cameras by law enforcement reduces instances of police brutality is not conclusive, participants said.
A minority of listening session participants said they believe body-worn cameras allow for police accountability and transparency and can help resolve differing accounts of events between police and individuals.
After a series of public input sessions on the county's budget process in November, the Board of Commissioners requested a briefing on the county's crisis response system. The system includes programs that address addiction, mental health and other crises that advocates for police reform say are better handled by behavioral health specialists.
In a briefing on Dec. 8, Kristin Burke, behavior health program coordinator for the county, described the county's mental health response teams, which pair deputies with mental health clinicians who are specially trained to help people in crisis to avoid further involvement in the criminal justice system.
The county's crisis response system is currently being evaluated to identify gaps and provide recommendations for service expansion, Burke said.
A regional supportive housing services measure, which was proposed by Metro and passed in May, could provide additional resources to the county's crisis response system, Burke said.
"These cameras are intended to serve as just one 'tool in the toolbox' to support accountability, transparency, safety and continuous improvement of our law enforcement services," Harrington said about approving the expenditure to expand the body-worn camera program.
Harrington explained how body-worn camera footage was key in making public the events that led to the March police killing of Daniel Prude in Rochester, New York. Prude was having a mental health crisis and died after being physically restrained by police. Officials in Rochester reportedly spent months trying to keep the footage from being made public.
Washington County Sheriff Pat Garrett has long supported the expansion of the Sheriff's Office's body-worn camera program.
"I thank commissioners and community members for their thoughtful engagement on this important issue," Garrett said. "The knowledge gained from those discussions helps us scale up and monitor deployment in a more community informed way."
Police departments in Beaverton and Hillsboro have used body-worn cameras department-wide since 2018. Portland, which has the largest law enforcement agency in the region, has yet to implement such a program.
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