By Joanne Zuhl
Mayor Sam Adams stood firm on his support of the proliferation of camera use by police under allegations from civil liberties advocates that they are ineffective and infringe on the public’s rights.
“I think the protection of civil liberties is very important but I also don’t want any of us to just dismiss the idea that this can help prevent crimes and solve crimes, because it does,” Adams told the audience at City Council today.
At issue is, by one description, a technicality in protecting property owners from damage caused by the installation, use and retrieval of cameras on their property. But it is more widely seen as a proposal by the mayor to allow the Portland Police Bureau to partner with property owners to install cameras aimed at public areas in the Old Town Chinatown neighborhood to support the illegal drug impact area program there.
The proposal had been on last week’s City Council agenda, but it was pushed to this week under pressure from Portland Copwatch and the American Civil Liberties Union to allow for more time for public consideration.
Today it was again postponed to next week after Commissioners Dan Saltzman and Amanda Fritz said they wanted to see the policies guiding the use of the cameras, which can tilt and zoom, under police control.
Dan Handelman, with the police watchdog group Portland Copwatch, said he is concerned the cameras violate the Oregon statute that prohibits the collecting and maintaining of information outside of criminal activity. Handelman testified before City Council that he was surprised to hear from City Attorney David Woboril that the city has cameras “all over the city.”
“We’re talking about giving them to law enforcement. That’s where the danger is,” Handelman said. “I don’t think there’s anything sinister about this, but I think we do need to have a discussion before this goes through.”
Becky Straus, the ACLU’s legislative director, testified that the cameras do not strike the right balance between safety and privacy.
“It’s a waste of money and there’s no evidence that it deters crime,” she told the council.
The mayor interrupted her testimony and told her to Google it.
“You said they don’t work, that they don’t prevent or solve crime,” Adams said. “We can tell you that that is patently not accurate. We do have cases where videotape has helped us apprehend someone who was dangerous … There is evidence. You can argue whether or not it’s worth the tradeoff, but there is compelling evidence that it does work.”
The mayor also noted that the cameras work both ways, recording both public behavior and police response, and that such evidence has lead to disciplinary action within the police bureau in the past.
Joe Walsh, a citizen who testified on the issue, said he believed the cameras would be used more to monitor demonstrations, such as the May Day events on Tuesday.
“Who’s going to control the film?” Walsh shouted. “We fear police, and we have good reason to.”
Adams pointed out that police misconduct has come to light in some cases because it was on camera.
According to Police Chief Mike Reese, the cameras will only be pointed at public spaces, such as sidewalks and intersections, and the information on the videotape will be overwritten every 24 hours. The videotape can be held, however, if it becomes a part of an investigation.
Adams said the city attorney has advised them that the videotape could not be kept longer than 60 days if there’s no indication of a crime having been committed.
“In our community, we have cameras everywhere – TriMet buses, MAX trains, ODOT has cameras. We have cameras on our free systems, even outside City Hall,” Reese said. “This technology allows police officers to more effectively monitor hotspots. Suspects don’t see the officer. It allows us to hold people accountable. It shortens the time in trial. It makes folks more accountable for their actions that are having a negative impact on our community.”
Saltzman held back on giving his support for the proposal until he could review clear policies regarding the camera’s use in viewing private property, and their susceptibility to being hacked and controlled by someone else. Fritz agreed and also requested the delay in voting.
“The concern I have is that there is a little bit of a voyeur in all of us,” Saltzman said. “The temptation, I’m concerned here, is too great for officers to stray from the streets.”
Reese said that those guidelines are probably already included in the bureau’s codes of conduct, but that he would be happy to draft them if they’re not.
Adams said that his office will post the answers to the questions raised on the city’s web site.
In tandem with the discussion on the cameras was the nine-month report on the illegal drug impact areas, which encompass much of the city’s core.
According to the report, 400 criminal cases were filed through the program, resulting in 417 exclusions from the city’s core for heroin, cocaine and marijuana. The majority of those exclusions, 305 were for possession, and the rest for dealing.
With the creation of these drug impact areas last June, the city allocated $250,000 to create a new deputy district attorney position dedicated to the areas. It also created a new walking beat for police in the areas.
People arrested and convicted of illegal drug activity in these impact areas are subject to screening by the city’s Service Coordination Team, which works with offenders to address housing, treatment and other service needs.
Several business owners in the neighborhood testified that the program has cut down on the open-air drug market in the city’s core. However, questions lingered from some Portland Copwatch and the ACLU that this program still has too many unanswered questions on how police are selecting who is stopped, questioned and arrested.