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Lawmakers Wrestle With Body Camera Policies

In the wake of police shootings across the country, several bills regarding police body cameras were proposed in this year’s Oregon legislative session. Only one major bill is left, focusing on the issue of the body cams and public records. 

Rep. Lew Frederick (D-Portland) started with a bill mandating that every law enforcement agency in the state equip its officers with body cameras. It quickly became clear that would be financially impossible for many counties and rural areas in Oregon. 

Lawmakers ended up with HB 2571 — a bill that would create a “policy floor” for the law enforcement agencies that choose to use body cameras. 

The Eugene Police Department currently has 18 officers who wear body cameras, according to EPD spokesperson Melinda McLaughlin. She says the downtown patrol and traffic officers received the cameras as part of a pilot project to see if they would be effective in the Eugene community.

“It’s a really good tool to have in modern policing,” McLaughlin says. She says both the officers and members of the public benefit from having an “unbiased” source of information.

The Oregon Legislature is trying to address some of HB 2571’s complicated privacy issues. The bill directs local jurisdictions to have a policy requiring the cameras are recording only when an officer has reasonable suspicion that a law enforcement action will be taken. Also, it puts public records requests for body cam footage under review of the courts. 

Given concerns about protecting the privacy of the public and of officers, bill sponsor Rep. Jennifer Williamson (D-Portland) says the best plan was to have a judge be the gatekeeper on the footage and decide whether the footage is in the public interest. 

“People are at their worst moments, generally, when they are being filmed by a police body camera,” Williamson testified to the House Committee on Judiciary.

McLaughlin says that very few public records requests for EPD body cam footage have been made, and privacy issues have not yes come up. But McLaughlin says EPD currently treats them just as it does requests for vehicle videos or photographs. Officers must give permission before a photograph or recording of them is released, and private information like Social Security numbers must be redacted.

In addition to putting release of the videos in the hands of a judge, HB 2571 would make it a state policy to blur the faces of everyone in a released video, unless they gave written consent. It would also create a timeframe for mandatory retention of the footage. 

The Oregon Association of Broadcasters and the Oregon Newspapers Publishers Association (of which The Register-Guard is a member and EW is an associate member) voiced concerns that the laws would be overly restrictive. OAB and ONPA want to get rid of the requirement for the judge to decide whether the video is in the “public interest.” 

Williamson says that protecting Oregonians’ privacy is more important than giving news agencies unfettered access to body cam footage and calls the criticisms “unfair.”

HB 2571 would also ban the use of facial recognition technology, though legislators say that ban is a way to table that issue for later discussion. Instead of implementing the technology with no guidelines, Williamson wants to make sure the Legislature has a specific and distinct conversation first.

“It’s often hard to put the genie back in the bottle,” she says.

Meanwhile, Frederick’s HB 2704, which allows citizens to openly record police officers performing official duties in public, also passed out of the House. Currently, citizen-videographers can record but must inform the officers they are recording. 

EPD’s McLaughlin says they plan to equip more officers in Eugene with body cameras soon. The Lane County Sheriffs Office does not use body cameras and has no definite plans to buy any in the near future.

HB 2571 passed out of the House and is now in the Senate Committee on Judiciary.