Mayor's proposed public safety plan includes funds for body cameras for officers, but research on their effectiveness is mixed.
In last week's $7.8 million public safety spending proposal, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler proposed a number of investments to reduce the dramatic increase in violent crime in the city. The mayor, who also serves as Police Commissioner in Portland's relatively unique commission form of government, wants to spend $2.9 million on a body camera program for police officers.
The proposal also includes a plan to offer $25,000 signing bonuses for new officers recruited by the Polic Bureau, $400,000 for the so-called "retire rehire" program to keep experienced officers on the front lines, $448,000 to expand a public safety support program, and $400,000 to conduct an independent analysis of the Police Bureau's crowd control procedures in light of increasing conflict between protestors and police.
Funds for the public safety package would come from the city's unanticipated $62 million surplus. As previously reported by NewsBreak, the mayor also intends to spend $18.8 million to address homelessness as part of a $38 million joint response package with Multnomah County, which also has a revenue surplus this year.
The $2.9 million ask would pay for the purchase 636 cameras to be used by police officers while on duty. Body cameras were recommended for the Police Bureau as part of a 2014 settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice around complaints of police violence.
News outlet KGW reported that Portland is the sole holdout among the 75 largest municipal police forces who have not moved towards body-worn cameras for officers. As Portland City Commissioner Mingus Mapps noted:
“As one of the last major cities whose police force is operating without this tool and heading toward a historically high homicide [rate], this conversation is past due. Fortunately, with both the DOJ and the [police union] pushing for a program, it’s all but certain that the city will fund a body-worn camera program this year.”
The use of body-worn cameras would need to be negotiated with the Portland Police's union before implementation.
The body cameras are small devices worn on uniforms that record interactions between the public and police. The mayor has likened them to popular "Go Pro" cameras. Their intent is to increase transparency and police accountability and to create a record of events that police, defendants, and the community can use in court cases and other investigations.
But do body cameras actually deter bad behavior by police? After twenty years of research on the usage of this technology, the results have been mixed.
One study of 2,000 officers in Washington, D.C., conducted in 2017 found that body-worn cameras had a negligible effect on officer behavior. “These results suggest that we should recalibrate our expectations of [body cameras’] ability to induce large-scale behavioral changes in policing,” the paper stated.
A 2018 study of 504 officers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin determined that body cameras essentially had "no effect" on the likelihood officers would use force in the course of their duties.
The U.S. Department of Justice contends that when looked at together, the numerous studies of body-worn cameras do lead to a "sizable reduction" in citizen complaints against police. The report does note that body-worn cameras are more likely to assist police officers in prosecuting crimes rather than policing the officers themselves.
Further research is needed to assess how body-worn cameras impact racial profiling and disparate treatment of communities of color.
The City Council will vote on the mayor's public safety proposal later this month.
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