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Eye in the Sky

Cops Spell out Privacy Rules for Old Town Video Cameras



ON THE EVE of a groundbreaking Portland City Council vote to allow police surveillance cameras in Old Town and Chinatown, the Portland Police Bureau sought to dispel mounting privacy concerns by spelling out, for the first time, a comprehensive policy for how and when officers can record citizens.

The "draft" rules—issued by Police Chief Mike Reese on Tuesday, May 29—came a day before the city council was expected to approve both the bureau's request for the Old Town cameras and a separate federal grant that would fix up the cops' surveillance airplane.

The council, pushed by police accountability and civil liberties advocates, decided to ask for the detailed policy back in April.

"There's a little bit of voyeur in all of us," Commissioner Dan Saltzman, worried about privacy abuses by cops, said at the time.

The proposed rules include provisions that attempt to address those concerns, such as banning recording of "private areas or areas where a reasonable expectation of privacy exists" and insisting that cameras would be used "to monitor public spaces where known or suspected criminal activities have existed." The rules also place limits on how long the bureau would be permitted to keep recordings, both from surveillance cameras as well as things like "assemblies, protests, and demonstrations"—30 days, unless used in a criminal case.

Reese and Mayor Sam Adams, the city's police commissioner, had initially hoped the council would approve the surveillance camera plan without any discussion, placing the bureau's request on the council's "consent agenda" in April.

But after Portland Copwatch's Dan Handelman and the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon asked to discuss the camera program, Reese showed up at council and defended his request as a way to help fight drug crimes in Old Town.

He said the bureau was looking at having a pair of cameras watching the public right of way, with the cops who walk the neighborhood able to check the feeds on smartphones.

"It has an impact on criminal behavior," Reese said at the council meeting last month.

But when commissioners like Saltzman and Amanda Fritz insisted on seeing a privacy policy before saying yes—"those are answers I need," Saltzman said—Adams relented by postponing the vote and asking Reese to give over what his colleagues asked for.

Privacy advocates remain skeptical, even with the new rules in hand. Members of the Oregon Progressive Party, as of press time, were planning to protest outside the Wednesday, May 30, council meeting.

Handelman says he appreciates the city's effort but complains the new policy is still too loose when it comes to defining things like "criminal activity."

"It still seems like there's too much wiggle room," he says. "Say jaywalking happens on a corner. Are you going to put cameras out there, too?"

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