Portland councilors to review proposed police body cam policy

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PORTLAND — The first public discussion of police use of body cameras comes Wednesday, Feb. 21, at a City Council workshop at 5 p.m. in City Hall.

While public comment is not taken in workshops, it is also the first opportunity for the public to see the proposed policy on body camera use by police.

City Manager Jon Jennings has proposed spending $400,000 for body-worn cameras in the fiscal year 2019 capital improvements budget, but full implementation will occur only after a pilot program with 25 officers is completed.

The nine-page policy outlines how the cameras, which can record for nine hours and link to recording systems in police cruisers, will be activated, how video will be downloaded and stored, and the restrictions on camera use.

Cameras will be worn by uniformed officers who have been trained in their use. The cameras will operate in a passive mode that does not record audio, and be activated to record video and audio “at the initiation of any law enforcement encounter.”

Those encounters “include, but are not limited to traffic stops, field interviews, uses of force, investigative stops, searches, detentions and arrests,” according to the policy memo.

If “an immediate threat to the officer’s life or safety makes activating the camera impossible or dangerous, the officer shall activate the camera at the first reasonable opportunity to do so.”

Officers will be advised to alert people that encounters, including witness interviews, are being recorded. They will be recorded until a scene is cleared and the on-scene command officer consents to returning the camera to its passive mode.

When officers respond to calls at schools, cameras will be activated “in cases of suspected criminal activity or when assisting school personnel with matters that may result in disorderly or otherwise disruptive behavior in the school environment,” the policy says.

Encounters with parents, students and school staff that are considered administrative will not be recorded.

At health-care facilities, encounters will be recorded only as officers are meeting with a complainant or victim, unless “an officer anticipates a violent or assaultive suspect.”

The cameras will not be fully activated to record strip searches, “tactical or strategic planning or procedures,” sobriety tests, or while making safety plans or threat assessments during domestic violence situations.

Officers will be required to categorize active recordings after a scene is cleared and videos will be downloaded at the end of each shift. Unless flagged as part of an investigation by an independent officer, videos will be stored for 210 days.

The videos could be viewed by the public after a Freedom of Access Act request is granted by the Police Department attorney.

In his digital presentation to councilors, Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said he hopes for full use of body cameras by fall. Two police unions have agreed to camera use, but policies will not be implemented until there is more public discussion.

Use of body cameras has been discussed by Jennings and Sauschuck since the summer of 2016, and Jennings noted his plans to move ahead with using them at a City Council Finance Committee meeting on Feb. 16, 2017.

About 36 hours later, on Feb. 18, 2017, Chance David Baker was shot and killed by Portland Police Sgt. Nicholas Goodman outside the Subway restaurant in Union Station Plaza.

Police responded to a call about Baker, 22, carrying a rifle and acting erratically. The rifle was later found to be a pellet gun. The shooting remains under investigation by the state Office of the Attorney General.

At a Feb. 21, 2017, press conference, Sauschuck said Baker was shot from about 100 feet away and a body camera recording the incident might have been of limited use, since Goodman was behind a vehicle when he fired.

Following Baker’s death, Jennings completed the paperwork needed to reallocate $25,000 from a U.S. Department of Justice grant to set up the pilot program, but the pace of getting body cameras in use was questioned by Mayor Ethan Strimling.

Strimling advocated getting funding to implement body camera use into the current CIP budget, while the rest of the council stood firm behind Jennings’ timetable.

On Tuesday, Strimling said he was pleased with his initial impression of the proposed policy.

“I think it is a really good foundation,” he said. “I will ask more about enforcement and the community groups who helped create the policies.”

Strimling added he is pleased with the anticipated schedule for full implementation.

In adding body cameras, Portland police will join their South Portland counterparts, where body cameras have been in use for about a year.  

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

All uniformed Portland police could be using body cameras by fall. A draft of the department policy will be discussed at a Feb. 21 City Council workshop.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.