Federal Justice Department wants body-worn cameras on Portland police, a civilian to oversee police training

From The Oregonian, July 15, 2021

Body-worn cameras for all Portland police officers.

A qualified civilian supervisor to lead the police training division.

Identifying and holding accountable police lieutenants and above who didn’t provide adequate justification for approving uses of force by Rapid Response Team members during Portland’s past year of racial justice protests.

Hiring an outside agency to critically examine police responses to protests and recommend changes to crowd control training.

Making a transition plan to a new voter-approved Community Oversight Board part of required police reforms.

These are among nine steps that U.S. Department of Justice lawyers want the city to make to meet its 2014 settlement agreement with the federal government on police use of force, training and oversight.

Federal investigators in April issued a formal notice to the city that it is out of compliance with the settlement. The two sides could be headed to mediation if they can’t agree on what to do.

“It is important we reach a resolution in this case,’’ R. Jonas Geissler, one of the Justice Department’s civil rights attorneys handling the settlement, said Thursday night before a community group.

The settlement followed a federal investigation that found Portland officers used excessive force against people with mental illness. It called for widespread changes to officer use-of-force and Taser policies, training, supervision, a restructuring of police crisis intervention services and quicker investigations into alleged police misconduct.

In February, the Justice Department found that the Police Bureau failed to meet four key reforms, citing inappropriate police use and management of force during last year’s protests, inadequate training, subpar police oversight and a failure to adequately share an annual Police Bureau report with the public as required.

The next month, federal lawyers asked Portland police to produce a plan of how they will properly report, analyze and investigate officer use of force. But city lawyers balked, saying the settlement didn’t require them to produce a corrective plan.

Portland city officials in May said they welcomed constructive criticism from the Justice Department but then blamed the federal government for contributing to the lapses in a 40-page response. They said federal agents escalated tensions last summer with their own response to the demonstrations.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jared Hager called the city’s argument largely a “distraction,” noting that the Justice Department concerns about Portland police use of force against protesters began last May and June, before federal agents responded to large demonstrations.

If the two sides can’t reach an agreement through mediation, they’re likely to return before U.S. District Judge Michael H. Simon, who originally approved the settlement.

The United States believes its position is extraordinarily strong, “not only on liability,” but on the city’s failure to comply with the settlement, “and, if necessary, we will be prepared to prove those points in court,” Hager said.

City Attorney Robert Taylor said more conversations will be held to “try to get to a resolution that satisfies everybody as best as possible,” to avoid a court order.

Justice Department lawyers met Tuesday in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Portland with Police Bureau command staff, Mayor Ted Wheeler and staff from city commissioners’ offices.

They outlined nine remedies to their concerns.

Hager called the discussion “productive” and said the Justice Department is “cautiously optimistic” but awaits further response from the city.

Chief Deputy City Attorney Heidi Brown said the full City Council must consider the remedies.

“We are giving serious consideration to all of these recommendations,” Brown said. She said the city, in particular, is very interested in the idea of hiring a civilian head to oversee police training. “We absolutely recognize things went wrong last year, and that’s why we are very interested in these remedies.”

Geissler stressed the judge has repeatedly expressed his interest body cameras for police. He said his office has shared at least three studies with city officials that highlighted the cost-effectiveness of the cameras and how they improve investigations, police supervision and accountability.

Geissler said the key objectives of adopting cameras should be: “The journey toward the truth and preservation of civil rights.’’

Hager said body cameras also will help address the Police Bureau’s inadequate examination of officer use of force during protests.

“In that chaotic crowd control situation, body camera footage, in real time, preserves a record of that interaction that is and was lost in 2020,” he said.

Current models can blur faces for privacy concerns, upload recordings wirelessly and transfer the recordings to public portals, Geissler said.

The Justice Department has advised that the city should control the access to the body-camera video: Supervisors should have access to the recordings but officers should write their initial use-of-force reports without viewing body camera video. Officers could later view the footage and write a supplemental report.

Such determinations would be part of ongoing negotiations with the Portland Police Association, Brown said.

Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty has been the most vocal opponent of body-camera videos for Portland police. She and Wheeler both attended the Tuesday meeting with the Justice Department lawyers.

On Thursday night, Hardesty said in a statement that she has been reluctant in the past to make “an expensive investment” in the cameras, but she said she’s open to having them after she listened to Justice Department lawyers strongly urge the city to adopt the cameras for city police.

“I have been researching the issue and now believe there is new technology, policies and additional best practices to draw from that can lead to a body camera program that produces better outcomes in policing, but the devil is in the details,” she said. She said she won’t comment on those details as those are the subject of contract talks with the police union. Hardesty also said she wants to hear more from the community, particularly those of color or those who are living with behavioral health issues.

Some community members Thursday night expressed concerns about the Police Bureau holding control of the videos.

K.C. Lewis, managing attorney for the advocacy group Disability Rights Oregon’s Mental Health Rights Project, said he wouldn’t consider the Police Bureau a “trustworthy steward of public records.”

Others said they were concerned the videos would be used to build cases against community members.

Attorney Anil Karia, who represents the Portland Police Association, said the union is supportive of body-worn cameras for officers, noting Portland police is one of the last major metropolitan police agencies without them. He said the proposed remedies were shared with the union on Wednesday, and the union needs more time to weigh in on them. The union had proposed during contract talks a policy that would allow officers to review body camera videos before writing their reports, which is contrary to the Justice Department’s advice.

The Justice Department’s nine remedies are outlined here:


1. Equip all officers with body-worn cameras.

2. Revise police Force Data Collection Reports and After-Action Review forms to better capture information, and show the required deadlines for completion and review.

3. Contract with a qualified outside entity to critically assess the city’s response to crowd control events in 2020 in a public report with recommendations and city’s response.


4. Create a “needs assessment” for crowd control training that adequately addresses issues with Police Bureau’s handling of 2020 protests.

5. Ensure the Police Bureau’s budget covers officers’ annual required training without relying on overtime.

6. Appoint a qualified civilian head over the bureau’s training division to ensure” consistent and appropriate training.”


7. Identify and hold accountable police lieutenants and above who approved force by Rapid Response Team officers without adequate justification during the 2020 protests.

High-level supervisors should be held accountable for allowing force used against protesters when there was only passive resistance by a particular demonstrator, Hager said. Justice Department lawyers contend that the Police Bureau advised officers that they didn’t need separate justifications for use of force based on individuals’ actions during a protest but based on an overall crowd activity.

8. Amend the settlement agreement within 90 days to include a transition and operations plan for the creation of a new voter-approved Community Police Oversight Board.

“The current situation causes uncertainty about how the city is going to satisfy its obligations under the agreement,” Hager said.

Brown said the city is committed to funding the current oversight system handled by the Independent Police Review office until a full transition is made to a future community board, which could take two or more years.


9. Issue Police Bureau’s 2020 annual report before the end of this summer with required public meetings, and continue to do the same in successive years.