Commissioners hear February update on early stages of Sheriff’s Office body-worn camera pilot program

March 7, 2023

Multnomah County Sheriff Nicole Morrisey O'Donnell (left) was joined by Law Enforcement Deputy Chief James Ericksen and Captain Doug Asboe.

The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners heard updates on Tuesday, February 21, 2023, on the early stages of a body-worn camera pilot program for the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO). 

The informational briefing, which came at the request of the Board of County Commissioners in June 2022, was intended to provide an update on the status of the nascent program and help officials gain a greater understanding of how it will work.  

“This is a complex process,” said Multnomah County Sheriff Nicole Morrisey O’Donnell, “and I want to thank the Board for proactively looking ahead and earmarking $500,000 in contingency funds to assist with the start of implementation.” 

The Sheriff was joined by Law Enforcement Deputy Chief James Ericksen and Captain Doug Asboe for the presentation. Together, they outlined policy and procedures, accountability, privacy and a timeline for a pilot project to launch.   

Several law enforcement agencies with jurisdiction within Multnomah County have already deployed the devices in their organizations, including the Gresham Police Department, Port of Portland Police Department and Portland State’s Campus Public Safety Office. Recently, the cities of Salem, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington have also launched body-worn camera programs. 

“While funds have not been used to date, we anticipate we will move forward with that next step within this calendar year” said Morrisey O’Donnell. “Through thoughtful engagement and process, we’re moving closer to initiating a pilot program to then fully implement body worn cameras into our law enforcement division.” 

The technology of body-worn cameras can provide deputies and community members with greater accountability and a better understanding of critical events of public concern, speakers shared. It can also facilitate fair and transparent adjudication of criminal and civil matters. 

“Body-worn cameras will support our foundation of building community trust, which is essential to serve the size, complexity and diversity of Multnomah County,” said Morrisey O’Donnell.

“It can be a highly effective resource providing an unaltered audio and visual recording of the interactions as evidence in the event of a crime, police-community member interaction or use of force event,” said Morrisey O’Donnell. 

But, she stressed, they are not a replacement for thorough written reports. 

Considerations around privacy, people in especially vulnerable situations

The abundance of camera phones, advances in technology and the emergence of social media has changed the way people view privacy, “contributing to the sense that it feels as though there are cameras everywhere,” said Morrisey O’Donnell.  

Body-worn cameras may increase opportunities for accountability by providing an extended account of interaction from beginning to end, which can supplement partial bystander video or security camera footage.

“This technology will also provide additional transparency into the daily operations of the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office Law Enforcement Division,“ said the Sheriff.  

However, there are concerns about how the footage from body-worn cameras will be stored and used, as well as the implications of using this kind of technology. Law enforcement agencies must balance considerations about the public’s right to privacy with the goal of being more transparent about operations, accurately documenting events and collecting evidence.

For example, while stationary security-type cameras can generally cover public spaces, body-worn cameras give deputies the ability to record inside private homes and during sensitive situations that might emerge during calls for services. 

“This means making careful decisions about when deputies will be required to activate cameras; how long recorded data will be retained; who has access to the footage; who owns the recorded data; and how to handle internal and external requests for disclosure,” said Morrisey O’Donnell. 

Morrisey O’Donnell also acknowledged that the use of body-worn cameras can complicate situations when officers interact with people in sensitive circumstances.

“We understand police contact can happen during vulnerable moments, such as domestic violence situations, hospital interviews or simply situations where community members may not come forward because of being recorded,” said Morrisey O’Donnell.

The Sheriff’s Office’s body-worn camera policy will address instances where privacy concerns may outweigh any law enforcement interest in recording, as well as how to document the rationale behind deactivating a camera when it is otherwise expected to be activated, and vice versa, the Sheriff told the Board.

Morrisey O’Donnell added that the Sheriff’s Office will also prohibit the use of facial recognition or biometric matching technology to analyze recorded data, except under court order.

Retention and interagency alignment  

The law provides guidelines about retaining body-worn camera footage. Morrisey O’Donnell related that MCSO will maintain video in accordance with state retention laws requiring that body worn camera data be retained for at least 180 days, but no more than 30 months for a recording not related to a criminal proceeding or ongoing criminal investigation, or for the same period of time that evidence is retained in the normal course of the court’s business for a recording relating to a court proceeding.   

The Sheriff’s Office collaborates on many public safety responses. Any collaborative public safety response may include the use of body-worn cameras across multiple agencies, the Sheriff said. However, “we can’t always guarantee that we are in alignment” around the body-worn camera policies and procedures of the responding agencies. 

Effects and opportunities of using body-worn cameras

Law Enforcement Chief Deputy James Eriksen continued the presentation by citing some of the existing studies related to body-worn cameras — many of which have examined officer use of force and citizen complaints brought against officers.

A 2019 Walden University study, Citizens’ Perceptions of Body-Worn Camera Usage by Law Enforcement, found that people perceive that body-worn cameras provide a level of security, trust and transparency. 

The study noted a “self-awareness theory” in which people are aware of their actions and behaviors and present a behavior that’s socially acceptable when they know they are being watched or observed, said Eriksen.

That theory extends to law enforcement officers and civilians. People reflected a lack of trust when officers did not use body-worn cameras, as opposed to feeling more respect when interacting with officers who wore them. 

Eriksen also shared that a University of South Florida study showed officers use less force when wearing body-worn cameras than those who don’t. 

In addition to increasing transparency, building community trust and encouraging accountability, body-worn cameras can serve as useful training tools to help improve officer performance, Eriksen said. Agencies are also using footage from body-worn cameras to provide scenario-based training and identify areas where additional training is needed. 

“We have the opportunity to raise standards of performance in tactics, communication and customer service,” said Eriksen. “It can help increase the perceived legitimacy and sense of procedural justice that communities have about their police department.”

While the use of this technology can help identify officers who abuse their authority or commit other misconduct, it can also help identify, assess and correct earlier instances of questionable behavior. 

Developing policies and choosing technology

The policies and procedures that serve as a foundation for all law enforcement operations, correctional operations and business services will become even more important as these devices gradually become standard equipment for public safety agencies, said Eriksen. 

But, noted Eriksen, “No collection of policies and procedures can anticipate every situation our members will encounter. They’re meant to provide specific guidance for as many situations as it is practical and a general direction that will help members identify the best course of action to follow and other circumstances. ​​They provide direction to act decisively, consistently and legally.” 

Eriksen told commissioners that one of the next steps for the pilot program is to completing a policy and standard operating procedures consistent with Oregon Revised Statutes, which would address: 

  • Requirement of retention time of the recording 
  • When a police officer must turn on a body-worn camera
  • Who owns the footage if the office uses using a third-party vendor
  • The prohibition of facial recognition
  • The prohibition of any recording for non-legitimate law enforcement purposes.

The agency’s policy will also involve stakeholder reviews, in addition to union notice and review. 

In December 2021, Captain Doug Asboe began to lead the process of developing policies and procedures for the Sheriff’s Office’s use of body-worn cameras. He formed committees that included law enforcement management, corrections management, represented law enforcement members, Inspections, training units and Information Technology.

“These committees reviewed applicable statute and case law, as well as national studies and regional policies to create a defensible, reasonable and thoughtful policy for the Sheriff’s Office body-worn camera pilot program,” said Asboe. 

The committee reviewed the policies of 16 agencies, including Oregon State Police, Washington County Sheriff’s Office, Port of Portland, Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office and the Gresham Police Department. 

The committee also reviewed three national studies — by the Brennan Center for Justice, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Right Study and the Police Executive Research Forum with the Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing — related to body-worn cameras and associated issues.

“We felt it was important to get a sense of how this was being addressed outside of our region. And what we discovered was that our region is very consistent with the rest of the United States,” Asboe shared.

The new policy clarifies when members of the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office may view video. However, the ability to review video images, Asboe said, does not de-emphasize the importance of thorough documentation of an incident.

“Although there were some differences in policy, there was clearly a prevailing practice that law enforcement viewed videos prior to writing reports or giving statements,” said Asboe.  The policy developed by the committees was also reviewed by the Sheriff’s Office Policy and Development Committee. 

Asboe also convened a Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) committee, which was then broken into two subcommittees. 

The language subcommittee was charged with reviewing laws and studies, and to provide specific language requirements that must be included in the SOP. The technology subcommittee met with vendors and solicited from both vendors and eventual end users through an online survey. Their initial assessments were then submitted to the Policy Development Committee. 

Asboe told the Board that a vendor was selected based on “a number of factors including price, quality, usability and seamless integration with existing technology.” Because the chosen vendor is currently providing other technology solutions to MCSO, there will be minimal delays in the procurement process, Asboe said. 

Finalizing the policy and Standard Operating Procedures, Asboe said, will involve listening sessions with contract cities and work groups representing unincorporated Multnomah County, as well as meetings with internal stakeholders like Records Management, IT and Communications. 

Next steps

“This policy starting point was guided by our extensive research as we move into additional work, which will include listening sessions and additional labor union review,“ said Morrisey O’Donnell.  

Those forthcoming listening sessions will include contracted cities, unincorporated communities, public safety advisory committees, neighborhood groups and community-based organizations.  

Morrisey O’Donnell said that as Sheriff, “It is my responsibility to acknowledge multiple dynamics, including various community perspectives, impacts on our partner agencies and members’ voices. All of these factors ultimately inform our final policy decisions and we will keep the board up-to-date as we continue our progress.”

The body-camera pilot program will launch with limited members in the winter of 2023. It will likely run for six months alongside efforts to fully develop staffing needs, among other requirements, to scale up the program for the entire agency. 

The Sheriff’s Office would likely conduct a review in late spring of 2024 and, if appropriate, would make requests for funding in fiscal year 2025, the Sheriff said. 

Commissioner comments

Commissioner Sharon Meieran noted the thoroughness and timeliness of the report, but inquired about the overall big picture of how the program will operate. 

“Body-worn cameras make sense to me from a variety of standpoints, particularly the transparency and accountability standpoints. But I’m still not sure about the big picture — like where decisions are being made in alignment with the rest of the public safety system,” she said. 

“Where are those big-picture concepts being discussed?” 

The Sheriff responded, sharing that while the policies her office was considering were in alignment with their major crime team partners like the Gresham Police Department and Oregon State Police, they would continue to work closely with their partners, including the defense bar, the District Attorney’s office and many other public safety partners.

Commissioner Susheela Jayapal admitted that while she brought “a fair degree of skepticism about body-worn cameras,” she also recognized that the technology had  wide public support. In light of that, she advocated for the body-worn camera policies to be closely tied to the original purposes of the technology, which were to “change behaviors and to ensure accountability and transparency.”

Commissioner Lori Stegmann returned to the issue of whether officers would be able to review footage from body-worn cameras before writing their report. She acknowledged that the intent to ensure more accurate evidence and reports by allowing officers to review the footage could be at odds with the goal of improving accountability and trust with the public.

“I do support body-worn cameras,” she said. “I think that data is incredibly important, and you know, the devil is in the details.”

In closing, Chair Jessica Vega Pederson touched on the emerging line of discussion among her fellow commissioners. 

“I think at the heart of the issue, and what we're hearing from this Board today, is really about what is the intent and (how) the use of body worn cameras is going to have an impact into our community on safety, transparency, and accountability,” she said.

The Chair also noted that perceptions and best practices around body-worn cameras have changed rapidly in recent years, and stressed the need to keep the focus not just on what’s happening elsewhere, but the search for truly local solutions.

“I think it's important to of course look at what's happening, but also really answer the question of what works for Multnomah County, for what the public expects, and what works for us as a law enforcement entity.”