Last June, the Oregon Legislature voted to regulate standards for the use of body cameras worn by state police officers. House Bill 2571, first introduced to the House in January 2015, took seven months to pass the House, Senate, and finally be signed into law by Governor Kate Brown in the beginning of July. The House voted in favor of body camera regulation with a vote of 59-1. These laws are now in effect.
Body cameras are similar to the dash cams that exist on police cars and motorcycles, but are instead worn strapped to an officer’s chest. Many Oregon officers have worn these devices for years, but until last year no laws had been made to standardize their use.
HB 2571 does not require officers to wear body cameras, and despite overwhelming support for the cameras by both officers and members of the public around the country, in order to help prevent incidents of police brutality and civilian violence, officers are only required to use body cams if requested to do so by the individual agencies they serve.
This bill did receive some amendments—one notably states that any agency to equip an officer with a body camera would have to ensure that the officer follows a set of strict rules.
Officers are required to turn on body cams as soon as they have probable cause that a violation is being committed. The cameras must be left running until interaction with a civilian— criminal or not— has been ended or resolved. Officers must inform citizens that they are being filmed, unless officers are trying to prevent a crime that is already being committed. Law enforcement agencies must later collect, retain, and store every recording for at least 180 days, and unless a judge or court later requires footage, the recordings must be destroyed after 30 months.
The Senate’s amendment regulating camera use, HB 2571-B, clearly states that if body cam recordings are released to news outlets or the public, the faces of both police and civilians involved must be blurred in order to be unrecognizable to viewers. The City of Portland also backed a section of an amendment that requires citizens involved in any video footage to cite the date and time when the recordings are taken.
“The Oregon house,” read a press release issued by the State in reference to House Bill 2571, “approved two bills designed to improve trust and credibility between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve.”
The Oregon Association of Chiefs of Police, the Oregon State Sheriff’s Association, the City of Portland, and the American Civil Liberties Union all supported the bill, though the ACLU initially had some concerns that that facial blurring could contest the transparency between officers and civilians that HB 2571 was designed for. Eventually those reservations were dismissed after the latter organization decided that it would still be possible with additional analysis to determine which police officers’ faces were blurred and to identify them by comparing footage with other police reports and records.
The Senate’s companion amendment, HB 2571-A, simply allows the public to record video of police at the same time as they are being recorded, if they choose to do so. Whether involved directly in a cop-civilian interaction or just standing on the sidelines, any member of the Oregon public can legally videotape the actions of a police officer with any video recording device or cell phone.
HB 2571-A does state that the public must not interfere with police while videotaping them, but protects the right of any citizen to film an officer, and to give the footage to law enforcement, courts, or judges if that party believes that the body cam footage from an officer shows events from an unfair or unobjective angle.
Whether or not the actual body camera footage that is later stored will help to improve relations between Oregon officers and citizens remains to be seen, but it is undeniable that the mere presence of such devices will help lessen the extent of conflicts between such officers and civilians.
Curious to find out how the presence of a body cam would affect a regular interaction between the police and the public, the Advocate interviewed a local woman about her encounter with one body camera-outfitted officer who spoke to her while she sat in the passenger seat of her car when her boyfriend was pulled over for speeding on Highway 34.
The young woman described a comfortable and drama-free interaction with the police officer, who’d also noticed that the young couple’s taillight was out and came to the passenger side of the car to address the situation.
The officer followed every rule in the book, and both the man and woman felt comfortable and at ease, making the interaction a positive one.
“He stated his name and immediately said that he was wearing a body camera and the interaction was being recorded and would be used in court if needed,” said the woman, who asked the Advocate to keep her name private.
“I think that having a body camera made the conversation/interaction a lot more civil. Both the officer and my boyfriend were nice to each other,” she said, explaining that if there wasn’t a body camera involved, the two might not have been as polite to each other. “In this situation I was glad there was a body camera because it made the interaction go quickly and smoothly for both us and the officer.”
Lebanon and Sweet Home reported outfitting all their officers with body cameras early last January, and even before the regulations of HB 2571 were put into action, areas in Central Oregon, such as Bend, followed in step.
Though the presence of cameras in subsequent interactions between the public and police have proved to be very helpful, one cause of concern which still affects those communities, as well as those with agencies which have began to standardize officer camera use more recently—Portland, Eugene, and Corvallis, to name a few—is how to cover the cost of collecting and storing the videotapes. Though the technology used in body cams is no more expensive than any regular personal camera, most Oregon law enforcement agencies still don’t know how they will come up with the funding for all the time and resources it will take for police stations to collect, store, organize, and blur-edit thousands of hours of camera footage.
Hopefully, a budget will be made possible, and soon, because this new policy of transparency, understanding, and accountability between police officers and civilians could be just what Oregon, as well as other states, needs in order to separate their law enforcement systems from those in which police violence and brutality have become commonplace. When cops and the ACLU agree, that says something.
Many Benton County officers are wearing cameras now, but the city still hasn’t come up with a budget to suit all of our officers.
By Kiki Genoa