Oregon’s largest police force wants to install video cameras in all of its patrol cars – following state police and agencies in Clackamas and Lincoln counties, Tigard, Lake Oswego, Medford and Scappoose.
But Portland’s budget problems may stall the bureau’s effort to expand use of the technology embraced by police across the nation to document everything from traffic stops and arrests to police shootings.
Portland police have had video cameras in a few traffic cars for the last eight years and wants to eventually install them in the bureau’s 320 patrol cars. This fall the bureau has asked for $165,188 to outfit 10 patrol cars with video cameras as a pilot program.
“A picture is worth a thousand words,” Portland Chief Mike Reese said. “The cameras are going to capture a lot of information and will help in prosecutions, but it’s also going to help in the complaint process as well.”
Law enforcement and police oversight agencies tout the technology as a way to provide objective evidence, particularly in controversial encounters that otherwise might rely on dueling accounts of what occurred.
“Basically, it’s a truth teller. It just says what happened,” said Oren Root, director of the Center on Immigration and Justice at the Vera Institute of Justice. Root was appointed to monitor a police agency in upstate New York that faced a consent decree, and reviewed thousands of tapes from their in-car cameras. “For the officers who do the right thing, the cameras are absolutely their best friend. But if cops are doing something wrong, it works to their detriment, as it should.”
Portland police say the video and audio recordings would provide “an impartial third-party account” that would be extremely helpful, particularly when it comes to reviewing officer-involved shootings. The federal justice department is investigating Portland police use of force, following a high number of officer-involved fatal shootings of people with mental illness.
“If there are questions about what police commands were issued, and what a person’s demeanor or response to those commands are, it would all be on video,” said Portland Officer Garrett Dow, who is researching the technology.
“An audio recorder strapped to a Fullerton, Calif. officer’s belt captured a crucial exchange between the officer and a mentally-ill homeless man who later died. The device recorded the officer telling the man he was going to beat him, and the recording persuaded prosecutors this September to charge the cop with second-degree murder.”
The video cameras are intended to help resolve citizen complaints, deter false complaints against officers, hold officers accountable for their actions and help restore public confidence in the police. But with the technology comes an array of practical and legal questions: from whether to have them activated automatically to how long the recordings are stored.
Portland’s financial planning division is throwing up a red flag, cautioning the bureau not to initiate a pilot project when there may not be money down the road to expand it due to anticipated budget cuts next year. The cost of outfitting cameras in all Portland patrol cars is estimated at $ 3.8 million.
In-car videos are widely used by police nationwide. About 72 percent of state and highway patrol cars have them. Seattle police have had them in their cars for five to six years; Los Angeles police plan to place them in all its patrol cars over several years.
Lincoln County’s 14 sheriff’s patrol cars are outfitted with cameras, capturing action in front of the car and in the back seat. They’re activated when a deputy flips on the car’s overhead lights. Deputies wear wireless microphones for audio recordings, expected to be activated for field interviews or arrests.
Lincoln County sheriff’s Sgt. Mark Meister said they have allowed supervisors to monitor how officers are driving, and helped clear up citizen complaints. In one case, a deputy stopped a motorist when he saw the left rear taillight go out. Once stopped, the light was on and the motorist claimed the deputy stopped him without cause. Supervisors checked the video and found: “Look, it went out, but it came back on. It had a short in it. It completely resolved the situation,” Meister said.
There was initial resistance by the deputies, afraid that Big Brother was watching them. But they’ve come to learn the benefits are huge, Meister said. “It’s recording what you’re doing and saying. Why be afraid of it?” Meister said. “The bottom line is your behavior, your conduct is scrutinized by the public all the time.”
Tigard police have had in-car cameras since 2005, and this year, mounted them on their motorcycles.”We’ve never had a complaint by a citizen that was sustained where video was reviewed,” Tigard Police Officer Jim Wolf said. “We’ve also used them as a training tool.”
When Portland’s traffic division first began using the cameras in seven cars, “initially you had officers worried about –’Oh, am I going to get caught swearing on tape?’ ” Portland Traffic Sgt. Robert Voepel said. But now, some traffic officers don’t want to ride without them.
But as cars were replaced, the cameras were not. Now, only two Portland traffic cars are outfitted with the system, which includes cameras pointed out the front and rear of the car, and a third on the back seat..
Mary-Beth Baptista, director of the Independent Police Review Division, said the traffic video footage showed that a citizen’s complaint about an officer’s rudeness was unfounded, yet also determined that an officer’s account that he was surrounded by an intimidating group and felt threatened was not supported . “When you have the video, it’s so easy to show what truly happened,” Baptista said.
With each stop, traffic officers must tell a motorist they’re being recorded, under state law.”It’s become second-nature. My name is so and so, and this is being recorded,” Dow said.
The bureau now wants to outfit 10 patrol cars, each with five cameras. The cameras would capture a 360-degree view.
The cameras can be activated by automatic triggers, such as when overhead emergency lights are on, if a car is in a collision, or once the back, prisoner door is opened. The current technology can even go back and capture up to 1.5 minutes before the camera is activated. The officers would wear a lapel microphone for audio.
Portland police are also testing body-worn cameras. “A lot of police work we do isn’t right beside the car,” Officer Scott Klinger said. “Wearable brings it along with you wherever you go.”
Sometimes the audio alone is extremely helpful. An audio recorder strapped to a Fullerton, Calif. officer’s belt captured a crucial exchange between the officer and a mentally-ill homeless man who later died. The device recorded the officer telling the man he was going to beat him, and the recording persuaded prosecutors this September to charge the cop with second-degree murder.
Video images taken from Seattle police cars were crucial in identifying a suspect’s car in the 2009 Halloween eve fatal shooting of Seattle Officer Timothy Brenton. They’ve also recorded confessions from prisoners en route to jail.
Root said the video recordings can be used for training, and he recommends sergeants conduct random reviews of them. Scappoose police Lt. Norm Miller says he uses them to check that his officers are not going over 70 mph. The cameras kick on if his patrol cars hit that speed.
“If you’re being recorded, are you going to act better? You bet,” Miller said.