Before Redmond Police officers leave the patrol room to begin their shifts, they walk to a charging portal against the back wall and grab a small piece of technology that gives them as much peace of mind as anything they take into the field.

In just a matter of months, this little device — a camera about the size of a deck of cards, worn on the chest of an officer’s uniform — has become integral to the force in Redmond, according to Lt. Curtis Chambers.

Officers say the same thing as defense attorneys: The cameras protect against false accusations.

“The program has been a great success, to the point that our officers no longer feel comfortable doing the job without them,” Chambers said. “A body camera, to them, is now like a vehicle, a firearm or an iPhone.”

With cameras ever present in 2019, law enforcement officials report many members of the public wrongly believe every interaction with police is being recorded by an officer. This isn’t the case, in Oregon or the rest of the country.

Several agencies in Central Oregon do have body-camera policies in place, notably Oregon State Police, which has dashcams mounted in most patrol vehicles and is beginning to add body cameras. But the state doesn’t require them, and many jurisdictions have resisted adding the technology.

This comes despite growing popularity on both sides of the legal divide.

“I think body cams are an absolute necessity and no-brainer,” said Bend defense attorney Shawn Kollie. “I have had countless cases resolve in favor of the defendant or the state based solely on video and/or audio evidence. It is generally difficult to argue against what the video and audio is or is not.”

Police are also increasingly in favor of the technology, especially younger officers, who are more familiar with it, Chambers said. In Redmond, the cameras have reduced false claims of officer malfeasance, he said.

It can also help keep the innocent from facing charges, said Steve LeRiche, Jefferson County district attorney.

“Prosecutors are in the truth business,” he said. “We want every bit of information we can have.”

Body-worn and dash-mounted cameras have grown in popularity in the U.S. over the past five years, triggered in part by a number of high-profile instances of questionable police use of force.

The area’s two largest law enforcement agencies — Bend Police and the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office — have yet to adopt body-camera programs, though they say they are on track to do so. They hope to enact policies that will help them avoid some of the thorny issues other departments have had with the technology — namely, the retention of records, cost and storage.

When it’s available, video evidence can play a major role in a criminal case. It’s factored into a number of recent high-profile criminal cases in Bend.

The Edwin Lara case

A body-worn camera factored into the case of Edwin Lara, who was convicted last year of murdering Central Oregon Community College student Kaylee Anne Sawyer.

As local law enforcement closed in on Lara, he fled the state, taking a hostage on his way and stealing her vehicle. When police in Siskiyou County, California ultimately arrested him, audio from an officer’s body-camera microphone picked up Lara asking to speak with a lawyer.

The evidence of that request factored heavily into Lara’s murder case in Bend. It was ultimately the reason local authorities decided not to pursue sexual-assault charges against Lara, despite his in-custody confessions to California authorities.

‘A great witness’

Video footage might have saved Medford man Robert Garris a criminal conviction. In May, Garris claimed self-defense after he shot a man named Christopher Nolan near the Jack-in-the-Box drive-thru on NE Third Street.

Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel said security footage from the restaurant confirmed some of Garris’ story, namely that Nolan had pulled out a switchblade before Garris shot him.

Hummel said the footage was critical.

“Video makes a great witness,” Hummel said. “The goal is to get where there’s no doubt. So ask yourself, do you want more evidence, or less?”

But there was no audio or video evidence in the case of Jesse Wayde Powell, who was shot to death in June by Deschutes sheriff’s deputy Randy Zilk in a campground off S. Century Drive. Zilk reported that Powell made sudden movements and lunged for a metal bar on the floor of his U-Haul, where officers later found a gun.

Defense attorneys polled by The Bulletin were firmly onboard with body-cameras. Several said they’ve had cases in the past where an arresting officer’s written report contradicted the video footage. Although reviewing video footage can take time and add delays, the process can add clarity by presenting a first-hand view of an event, rather than relying on a witness’s memory, they said.

“I’m a big supporter of body cams as evidence,” said Bend defense attorney Todd Wilson. “It really helps show what happened, how it happened, when it happened. It provides a kind of clarity that everybody can react to and plan for.”

The American Civil Liberties Union recommends agencies adopt a policy of continuous recording and allow officers to pause recording only in certain situations, such as while interviewing a victim of sexual assault.

Costly

Though they’re lauded for improving public trust in law enforcement, body cameras are expensive, especially for smaller agencies. And a major problem is storing all the footage recorded by the cameras, which accumulates fast.

Two years ago, the Redmond Police Department began adding body cameras to officer patrols. The city has so far spent approximately $100,000 on a WatchGuard system comprised of body-worn cameras that link to the dashcams to their in-car video systems. Under the department’s body-camera policy, footage is retained for 180 days before being deleted. There are exceptions if the footage pertains to an active investigation or has been requested through the Freedom of Information Act.

Elsewhere in Central Oregon, all patrol officers with Prineville Police Department and the Crook County Sheriff’s Office use both body and dash cameras most of the time. Sunriver Police has several vehicles outfitted with dash cameras.

But the area’s larger agencies, notably Bend Police, Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office and Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, have resisted, though officials say they are each looking into acquiring the technology.

Unlike in some jurisdictions, where police officers unions have opposed body cams, the Redmond Police Officers Association was supportive, Chambers said.

In Portland, a draft plan developed by the Portland Police Officer’s Association was criticized for allowing officers to review footage before writing a report in certain cases involving the use of force by police.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has said he hopes all Portland Police Bureau officers wear body cams by the end of 2020.

— Reporter: 541-383-0325, gandrews@bendbulletin.com

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