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Training precedes Washington County tapping federal grant for pilot project.

Washington County sheriff’s deputies continue to prepare for the day some of them will start testing the use of body cameras during traffic stops and other interactions with the public.

Sheriff Pat Garrett and Commander John Koch say deputies will have to complete training before their agency can tap a $35,239 federal grant for a 90-day trial run.

Garrett and Koch briefed county commissioners Tuesday (Jan. 26) on the status of the pilot project and assessed positive and negative points on the use of body cameras.

“It will improve the quality of evidence we can capture when we are on a crime scene,” Garrett said. “It will improve the transparency of what we do every day, and add trust that the community has in our work, by these kinds of records.”

Although he and Koch discussed potential drawbacks, Garrett said, “we are eager to have that kind of check and balance across the board.”

Garrett said there are far more volunteers among the deputies than cameras that will be available for the test run.

The 50 Taser Axon cameras will be funded through a federal grant named in honor of Edward Byrne, a New York Police Department officer shot dead in 1988. The grants from the Department of Justice enable local agencies to obtain equipment, technology and training.

Beaverton and Eugene police received federal money last fall to purchase body cameras, Beaverton at $150,000 and Eugene at $249,000. The Portland Police Bureau also is considering spending money, but is first drafting policies for their use.

Garrett said that before his agency purchased any cameras for permanent use, deputies would test models from a number of manufacturers.

Although the cameras themselves are relatively inexpensive, Garrett said their real cost lies in the data storage system for the video produced.

“One of the reasons we are going slow is because of those costs,” he said.

Based on an estimated cost of $1,000 per deputy and 200 deputies, Koch said the total for cameras and related equipment could reach $200,000, plus data storage ranging from $50,000 to $150,000 annually.

Laws and policies

Washington County adopted a policy for law enforcement use of body cameras back in November.

It followed approval by Oregon lawmakers of a 2015 law setting standards for their use, which is not mandatory. The Columbia County sheriff and Hermiston police have begun their use.

Oregon was among 10 states that passed related laws.

Under Oregon’s law, officers can activate cameras “continuously” upon reasonable suspicion or probable cause that a crime or violation is being committed. The camera can be turned off once an officer’s participation ends.

Officers must announce that a body camera is in use, but agencies can make exceptions based on privacy, public safety or “exigent circumstances,” such as when an officer attempts to thwart someone from committing a crime or interviews a vulnerable witness.

Koch told the commissioners that body cameras will not resolve all issues with police interactions with the public.

While a viewer can see a playback of an encounter frame by frame, he said, “the deputy who is out there making those split-second decisions does not have the opportunity to do that.”

A body camera also has a limited frame of reference.

“What a body camera does not do is bring in the whole environment of what is going on and the chaos surrounding the deputy,” Koch said, including sounds and smells.

Garrett also said that a camera may be unable to depict a gun or other weapon in the waistband of someone the deputy is confronting – although the deputy himself can see it clearly.

Limited disclosure

Although Oregon’s 2015 law would shield most police video from disclosure — similar to video shot from cameras mounted in patrol cars — it does provide an exception if public interest in disclosure outweighs the need to withhold it.

Ultimately, a judge would determine what is in the “public interest,” which is a common legal balancing test applied to materials under Oregon’s public records law.

But requests must be “reasonably tailored” to the approximate date and time of an incident, and the video must be edited to make all faces unrecognizable.

Oregon law bars agencies from disclosing photographs of officers without their consent, although agencies themselves can use them.

Washington County did use videotaping, based on cameras mounted inside patrol cars, from 2004 to 2007. Garrett said storage problems prompted an end to the practice.

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