Don’t expect Portland police to be wearing body cameras anytime soon.
Mayor Ted Wheeler on Thursday asked the police chief to provide the City Council with a detailed long-term plan for the cameras — including costs to outfit officers with them, support staff needed to cull through the video footage for use as evidence in prosecutions and how the bureau would respond to public records requests for the video.
“I’d like to know if this is even feasible,” the mayor said during a budget work session.
While Wheeler said he recognizes the value of police wearing cameras to increase transparency and community trust, he doesn’t want the public to expect the bureau to “do something that we can’t deliver.”
“That’s in a nutshell why we don’t have body cameras today,” Police Chief Mike Marshman responded.
Former Mayor Charlie Hales had taken a different approach.
In fall 2014, a federal judge urged Portland to place body cameras on its officers even though they aren’t required under the city’s use-of-force settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice.
Days later, Hales said he agreed with the judge’s push and wanted police to wear the small cameras within a year.
The Police Bureau set aside money to buy cameras and held community forums to solicit ideas from residents to help draft a formal policy for their use. In 2015, the Legislature passed a bill that set statewide standards for their use.
The city set aside $834,619 several years ago for police to buy cameras, and the bureau has carried over the money from year to year. The city last year gave the bureau another $1.7 million in ongoing funding to start a body camera program.
Police still want to develop a program, but have suggested for the next fiscal year cutting $1.2 million out of the $1.7 million allotted for the camera program. That would eliminate two non-sworn staff dedicated to it.
The city budget office recommends the one-time cut to help balance the city’s general fund. The police bureau, though, would prefer to use the money instead to help cover costs of replacing the mobile data computers in police cars.
If money wasn’t an object, Marshman said he’d equip every officer with a body camera.
“Purchasing the camera is the easy part,” he told the City Council. The hard part, he said, is figuring out how to prepare videos for evidence and public access — and what’s needed to do that.
“But we are hiring a program manager to take on that task,” Marshman added.
For the program manager position, the bureau budgeted $128,784, including a $92,496 salary plus benefits.
Commissioner Dan Saltzman questioned why police would hire someone to run a program that may never materialize and not instead hire a consultant. Bureau officials said the cost of a consultant likely would be higher.
The Police Bureau’s budget advisory committee, made up of local citizens and a retired police sergeant, has cautioned police not to drop support of body cameras. In its budget note, the committee said the program “will have positive impact on the actions of both police officers and the public.”
Last month, the Seattle City Council voted to spend more than $2 million buying the cameras and building a program to use them despite ongoing privacy concerns from advocates including the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.
The mayor is expected to release his proposed budget in late April, and the council is set to adopt a budget in early June.
Other highlights of council review of the police bureau’s proposed $209 million budget:
Staffing shortage: As of February, the bureau had 62 vacancies, compared to 43 at that time last year. Fifty sworn officers also are now eligible to retire, with another 44 eligible by the end of 2017. Officers also are voluntarily resigning — 17 of 52 officers who left in fiscal 2015-16.
Marshman said 385 officers will be eligible to retire in the next five years. To overcome that attrition and fill vacancies, the bureau must hire 75 officers a year, “which Personnel hasn’t done in the last decade or so,” he said. The most the bureau has hired in any recent year is 53 officers, and that was in fiscal 2010-2011.
Wheeler asked if higher police pay — negotiated last year by his predecessor — is drawing more people. Marshman said it appears to have expanded the applicant pool and helped delay some retirements. The bureau received 1,300 applications this fiscal year.
Due to the vacancies, the bureau reassigned 21 officers from specialty units to patrol and moved from three patrol shifts a day to four shifts to better meet peak staffing needs. Yet, the bureau’s response time to high priority calls has increased to about 6.5 minutes, beyond its five-minute goal.
Horse patrol: The chief suggested eliminating the Mounted Patrol Unit for a $1.1 million savings. Marshman, a former member of the unit, said he believes the horses help connect police to the community. But the unit is now down to one sergeant and one officer. Three other officers were reassigned to fill patrol vacancies due to staff shortages.
“I think the horse is an amazing vehicle for community policing,” the chief said. “I understand it’s expensive.”
He said he agreed with Commissioner Nick Fish and Wheeler that holding onto the barn at the Centennial Mills site isn’t wise. Wheeler said the site could be used for affordable housing along the riverfront instead.
“Where I sit right now … I ‘d rather go towards a foot-based patrol and community policing when it comes to improving the relationship between the community and the police,” Wheeler said.
The chief suggested the horses, temporarily housed in Lake Oswego, could be moved to the Rivergate site at the west end of the St. Johns Bridge, where police now store cars seized as evidence. The unit has eight horses; care for each costs about $5,000 a year. Friends of the Mounted Patrol has raised $465,000 toward a future home for the horses. The money is being held in a trust, according to city officials.
The City Budget Office has recommended elimination of the unit.
“While the unit is well-loved by Portlanders, it is consistently ranked as a lower-priority/less-core service by the Police Bureau,” the office’s analysis said. “By eliminating the unit as part of this budget process, the city would avoid the costs associated with relocating the stable and would avoid any ongoing costs of increased rental agreements and maintenance for a new facility.”
The mounted patrol has been a perennial budget target in Portland but has maintained its foothold with ardent community supporters.
Recreational marijuana taxes: The City Budget Office has proposed using a portion of the city’s 3 percent tax on recreational marijuana to cover the Service Coordination Team, which works to find housing, jobs and treatment for chronic drug addicts and homeless people.
About $2.2 million would go to the Service Coordination Team and another $500,000 to the Police Bureau’s Traffic Unit, which does drunken driving enforcement, investigates serious or fatal collisions and major traffic crimes.
Commissioner Amanda Fritz said she had promised a public process for distributing revenue from the marijuana tax, and said she was dismayed that the city budget office was making allotments without public input. She wondered aloud where the other $400,000 in revenue would land.
City Budget Director Andrew Scott said using the money from the tax for these purposes would be “consistent with city code” and help the city deal with a $4.4 million shortfall in its general fund.
— Maxine Bernstein