Illustration by Kelsey Zuberbuehler

Release the footage

Portland Police should have body cams—and that footage should be public

Like police departments in many cities, Portland Police have considered the use of body cameras. The road to body cams in Portland has been long, and there are still many differences in opinion between the Portland city government and the Portland Police Bureau about what they would look like, per KGW. If and when Bureau officers do wear body cams, they need to be implemented transparently—the public should have more direct access to footage collected so they can see what really happens on police calls.


When police are called to a crime scene, what proof do we have that the police report accurately represents what happened? This is a question that our city government and the police union have engaged in tense negotiations over. “The city of Portland and the Portland Police Association have, once again, come to a familiar sticking point over the use of body-worn cameras: pre-review of video footage by cops,” according to Willamette Week. “On Friday, the two parties released their final offers. There was no middle ground. The police union wants officers to be able to review the camera footage in instances of potential excessive force before they write reports, and city attorneys have argued that pre-review by cops could negate the intended effect, which is holding cops to a higher standard of accountability.


It is because of the need for this higher standard of accountability that body cams for Portland police should not be viewed by police first. If the police have control over body cam footage, they have the ability to give any report they want—even if that report is not necessarily the truth.


According to current Bureau policy, “videos can only be released when it is in public interest.” The police are the ones who decide if release is in the public’s interest, so effectively the police still have the ability to decide what the public can see—that’s especially relevant in cases where footage might reflect poorly on the department.


One way to address this problem is by posting the footage from Bureau body cams directly to the department’s website. For less serious crimes or suspected crimes—like traffic stops, theft, etc.—the footage should be posted automatically. If this footage was immediately available to the public, the police wouldn’t be able to submit contradicting or false reports of what happened at the scene.


The American Civil Liberties Union has suggested exactly that, “so that people who have encounters with police know what to expect, how long they have to file a complaint, and how to request access to footage,” according to their Recommendations for Oregon Law Enforcement Body Camera Policies posted to If this was so, then the public would have video of exactly what happens when police are on the scene, unfiltered.


With the footage out in the hands of the public, the police would be motivated to be more careful with how they handle certain situations. This would also not give officers the opportunity to give false reports, and provide a disincentive for misconduct or use of deadly force.


Overall, having body cameras at all would be a step forward. “Professor Jens Ludwig, head of the [University of Chicago] Crime Lab, says the findings show the key benefit of body-worn cameras is the reduced use of police force,” NPR reported. “For example, among the police departments studied, complaints against police dropped by 17% and the use of force by police, during fatal and non-fatal encounters, fell by nearly 10%.”


Giving the public access to body cam footage would be a big step in the right direction. With the threat of exposure causing fewer police officers to use force or give false reports, the department can be held accountable for police violence and other misconduct that they may want swept under the rug.