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Cost, privacy issues keep city, county from adopting technology

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Sherwood Police Officer Carl Drummond wears a body camera on his glasses while investigating a homicide on Thanksgiving 2014.  Portland and Multnomah County are moving slower than nearby law enforcement agencies to equip their police officers and sheriff’s deputies with body cameras — a new technology being widely advocated as a way to help restore public trust after a series of controversial police killings last year.

The City Council has set aside $834,619 to buy cameras and related equipment but, so far, nothing has been purchased. The Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, which employs both patrol and jail deputies, is still researching issues related to them. No time has been yet set to present a request to the Multnomah County Commission.

Meanwhile, several cities in the metropolitan area already are using body cameras on at least some of their police officers. They include Beaverton, Oregon City, Sherwood, Tigard and West Linn. The Columbia County Sheriff’s Office recently begin requiring its jail deputies to wear body cameras when dealing face-to-face with inmates.

Columbia County Sheriff Jeffrey Dickerson is a strong supporter of body cameras for law enforcement officers.

“The technology is there, and I’m committed to transparency. The more people see what law enforcement faces every day, the more the public will be on its side,” he says.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Columbia County Deputy Michelle Vandenberg wears a camera on her lapel as she goes about her rounds.However, Dickerson does not fault Portland or Multnomah County for moving slower. He admits that his office can move faster because it is so much smaller, meaning the cost of buying the equipment and storing the digital recordings is far less. For example, his county only spent $24,000 to buy 30 cameras. There are only four jail deputies on each shift, meaning there’s relatively little data to store, compared to how much would be collected by the much larger number of Portland officers and Multnomah County deputies.

“We never had enough money for even a single dash(board) camera for a patrol car, but we can afford this,” Dickerson says.

Cost is a growing issue in Portland. A recent memo from the City Budget Office warns the $834,619 set aside by the council might not go very far, considering that the city has around 1,000 officers who could be required to use body cameras. According to the memo, the cost of storing all the recordings they collect has not yet been estimated.

“Law enforcement agencies have reported that the ongoing costs associated with data storage, retention policies, and records management have exceeded most current staff levels and initial cost estimates,” the March 9 memo reads. “Costs associated with data storage can be significant and, over time, there will be increased requests for video records as more people are aware of the existence of the recordings.”

Privacy concerns

Other issues are delaying the rollout of body cameras in the Portland Police Bureau, however. When the council held a hearing on seeking bids for the cameras in December, they heard from community members who urged them to draft guidelines about how the cameras will be used before they are purchased and deployed. Among other things, some worried about privacy issues, including whether video recordings of people experiencing mental health problems will be released to the public.

Mayor Charlie Hales, who is in charge of the police bureau, agreed the city should wait until the 2015 Oregon Legislature addresses such issues before moving forward.

“We need to be able to balance the public’s right to know with their right to privacy,” Hales says.

How police body camera recording will be treated under the Oregon Public Records Law is one of the thorniest issues being discussed by the 2015 Oregon Legislature. Everyone agrees that releasing recordings of controversial encounters can help answer questions and restore public trust. However, many recordings are sensitive, including images of people experiencing mental health problems and interviews with victims of rape, domestic violence or child abuse.

The city is supporting House Bill 2571, which requires law enforcement agencies to establish policies and procedures for retaining recordings from body cameras. It also provides an exemption to the state law that requires all parties to be notified when they are being recorded. Such an exemption already exists for cameras mounted on the dashboards of police cars. Dickerson says such notifications are not required in the Columbia County Jail because inmates already have been arrested and informed of their rights.

According to Portland lobbyist Andy Smith, the city is working with other interest groups — including prosecutors and defense attorneys — on amendments to HB 2571 to determine when and how such recordings should be released.

The Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association also is involved in the discussions. At this point, Executive Director Laurie Hieb says the new law must protect privacy but maintain accountabity.

“ONPA has serious concerns with a flat-out exemption of all police body-cam videos from public records. The public has a right to know about police activities and how they interact with the public. With recent investigations of police shootings across the country and other situations that lend themselves to doubting either a member of the public or a police officer, we feel it is in the best interest of both the public and law enforcement to be as transparent as possible. We obviously see that it gets complicated in certain situations and hope that well-thought-out procedures will handle those situations,” Hieb says.

However, Open Oregon, a 20-year-old charitable organization dedicated to teaching state residents about their rights to public information, says the public should have even more access to them than other records.

“Body-cam videos taken by police officers most certainly should be disclosed as public records, just like any other police record. The current public records law allows an exemption for ‘criminal investigatory’ information, and I would hope that body-cam videos would not be included in that exemption because they are images, usually, of events that occur in public,” says Judson Randall, a retired journalist and Open Oregon’s president.

Other cities are struggling with the same issues. For example, the Los Angeles Police Department considers the recordings to be investigative records that are exempt from California’s public records law. They will only be released if required by a criminal or civil court proceeding, a condition being challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union.

After the Legislature acts, the Portland Police Bureau must adopt policies governing the use of body cameras before they can be deployed. Because of that, they probably won’t be put into service until 2016, at the earliest.

Support growing

President Obama came out strongly in favor of body cameras after the controversial police killings of unarmed African-Americans in Ferguson, Mo., and New York last year. In December, he announced $263 million in funding for law enforcement agencies to help purchase 50,000 body cameras. However, two months later, the Task Force on 21st Century Policing that he appointed stopped short of insisting police wear body cameras because of concerns about people’s privacy and who will retain the recordings.

Body cameras — officially known as Body Worn Video — are small cameras worn on clothing or glasses that digitally record and store what they see when turned on. The recordings can be transferred to storage units and played back on computers. Police in Europe first began experimenting with body cameras in 2005. By 2014, 41 cities in the United States were using them on some of their officers.

Advocates argue body cameras can reduce violent confrontation between police and civilians when they know their actions are being recorded and can be reviewed later. If an encounter escalates into violence, the recording can help determine who was at fault by providing an objective account of what happened. However, even advocates admit such recordings are not perfect, because they only capture what happened in front of the cameras. Even then, the officer has to turn the camera on for it to record anything in the first place.

There are a litany of other issues that a government must consider before committing to body cameras for its law enforcement officers. Although the initial cost is relatively small, the cost of storage can be very expensive, especially for a large law enforcement agency. Additionally, there are the privacy issues — not only for the civilians being recorded, but also for officers who could get in trouble for criticizing superiors during unguarded moments.

Many of these issues were discussed in an October 2013 research paper by ACLU Senior Policy Analyst Jay Stanley. The six-page paper notes the civil liberties organization is against pervasive government surveillance, but believes body cameras have the potential to serve as a check against police abuses. At the same time, the paper says body cameras have the potential to invade privacy more than other government surveillance systems, such as street and police dashboard cameras. In the end, it argues for policies to protect privacy but still allow body cameras to be deployed.

“Overall, we think they can be a win-win — but only if they are deployed within a framework of strong policies to ensure they protect the public without becoming yet another system for routine surveillance of the public, and maintain public confidence in the integrity of those public protections,” says the paper, titled, “Police Body-Mounted Cameras: With Right Policies in Place, a Win for All.”

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