Board, police debate use of body cams in schools

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A tense meeting of the Portland School Board last week was marked by the walkout of the city’s new police chief after a long discussion about the use of body cameras by School Resource Officers and the value of the SRO program as a whole.

In a press release the next morning, city spokeswoman Jessica Grondin attempted to “change the narrative” after the “walkout” by Chief Frank Clark grabbed headlines.  

Portland Police Chief Frank Clark at his September swearing-in ceremony. (City of Portland)

“Chief Clark and staff spent 4 1/2 hours in attendance, listening to the concerns, answering questions and proposing an intermediate remedy,” Grondin said. “Chief Clark left the meeting only after being advised by Superintendent (of Schools Xavier) Botana of the final outcome and having received clarity on the board’s intended resolution.” 

The chief and the superintendent confirmed they want to continue negotiations, the statement said, and while negotiations are ongoing, SROs will remain in schools and they will not activate their body cameras.

However, Grondin said, if an agreement cannot be reached, the Portland Public Schools and Police Department would have to come to a decision about whether SROs will remain in Deering and Portland high schools. 

The School Board in the Nov. 12 meeting considered amendments to its 2015 memorandum of understanding with the Police Department that covers the SRO program. Police adopted the use of body cameras in 2018 for all officers except the SROs. Before the meeting, Clark indicated to the superintendent that the SROs would begin using the cameras immediately, regardless of whether the revisions regarding body cameras were accepted.  

When it was clear an agreement would not be reached that night, the board went into executive session to consider options. It returned with a request to the Police Department to have its SROs refrain from using the cameras until a new memorandum of understanding could be agreed upon. But Clark and other officers in attendance had already left the meeting. 

School Board Chairman Roberto Rodriguez took this as an affront. 

“Seeing that the chief and his officers walked out the moment we began this conversation, leads me to question whether they would respect the will of this board,” he said. “I don’t think that is conducive to a collaborative relationship with the Police Department, and in my view that underlines the fundamental issues with the SRO program, that we are not …  in control of these officers, and they don’t particularly agree with what we do and they do what they want.” 

Many of the concerns raised in the meeting were about privacy and the unintended consequences of police owning recordings of students in schools: that they could be shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, for example. 

Board members argued that the recordings should be treated as educational records, which have strong privacy protections, and stored at district offices. But Clark said that would require the redundant installation of an expensive storage system, and the city had just invested in one for the Police Department.  

The revisions to the memorandum under consideration provided that officers may activate body cameras “only when responding to cases of suspected criminal activity or when assisting school personnel with matters that may result in disorderly or otherwise disruptive behavior.” 

Some members said this language was too broad and sought to limit the situations that would lead to an officer’s camera being activated. But, Clark responded, “We do not want to set up a separate, alternate standard for two officers on the force out of 161.”  

He suggested that officers begin using the cameras in schools as a pilot program. Feedback could be collected from SROs, teachers and students, which the board could use to make a data-driven decision about how to change the agreement for the next school year.

On both sides, concerns were raised about “role creep:” the blurring of the line between law enforcement, the SRO’s responsibility, and school discipline, which is the responsibility of school staff.

As questions drifted into other SRO practices beyond the use of cameras, Clark pointed to the non-quantifiable benefits of the SRO program, which has been in place in Deering and Portland high schools for 30 years. 

“How do you measure somebody that makes a student or teacher feel safer when they go to work every day, or the benefits of an SRO that can connect to community resources to help someone who comes to them saying they’re being abused or neglected at home … or the importance of reversing immigrant students’ perception of police?” he asked. “Having that interaction between police and the school in the 21st century is invaluable in breaking down barriers and providing mutual understanding.” 

Still, the board questioned that value. Rodriguez said those things are non-quantifiable because they are not measured. Board member Emily Figdor urged the district to collect data to evaluate the program as a whole.

“There isn’t a lot of research on the effectiveness of SROs in making our schools safer, and the evidence that is available is very mixed,” Figdor said, “so we don’t actually know that SROs in Portland and beyond are helping keep our schools safe.”

On Monday, when asked if his feelings about the relationship with the Police Department had changed since the chief agreed to delay implementing the body cameras, Rodriguez said “it is still something that is front and center and that I’m processing and talking to board members about, and yes I am partly changing our overall approach.”  

The chief responds

Police Chief Frank Clark responded in an email Tuesday afternoon, Nov. 19, to questions submitted to him by staff writer Jordan Bailey. Here are the questions and his responses:

Question — Did you leave the Nov. 12 School Board meeting because you were frustrated with the way the negotiations were going?

Portland Police Chief Frank Clark

Answer — Absolutely not.  I had been in attendance for several hours at that point, and had just been briefed by the Superintendent (after Executive Session) about the Board’s decision and resolution.  Having that information, my staff and I left as the Board was reconvening so we could step outside and discuss without being a distraction.  The narrative that we somehow walked out as some sign of frustration or disrespect is an utter mischaracterization.      

Q — Were you considering pulling the school resource officers out of the schools at that point?

A — No, I’m a huge proponent of (the) school resource officer program for several of the reasons that I discussed that evening with the Board.  Although that is a potential outcome in this matter, I’ll continue to work diligently in hopes that we can prevent that from occurring.   

I believe the benefits of SROs are immeasurable. How do we measure “safety,” and determine whether or not the SRO’s presence deterred a would-be incident? How do we measure the benefits of an SRO who makes students and staff FEEL safer in the learning environment? How about the benefits of a SRO who can pull together school and community resources in order to help a student who reports being abused or neglected at home? Or the importance of reversing an immigrant students’ mistrust of the police, which may be based upon interactions they or their family may have had with police in their former country?  

Another area that I requested to be added to the (memorandum of understanding) was the addition of our SROs to a formalized multi-disciplinary threat assessment team, which incorporates an evidence-based process supported by the Secret Service and the Department of Education. Our officers can view things through a different lens. They’re trained in safety, risk management and threat assessment, and are forced to consider and plan for what are (fortunately) relatively low frequency, yet very high risk incidents, such as an active shooter. This process is a means to differentiate between substantive versus non-substantive threats, with the outcomes intended to include reduced suspensions, less bullying, a better school climate and increased safety.  

Q — Do you feel that it is likely that an agreement will be reached?

A — I tend to be an optimist, and look forward to continued discussions with the Superintendent and his staff on that very topic.  

In that vein, that is why I proposed implementing a temporary pilot program that would allow us to more thoroughly assess their use in the schools. That would have provided us with the opportunity to collect data (such as how many times per month would our SROs even be activating the devices), as well as valuable feedback from other stakeholders, to include staff and students. All of that would have allowed us to make a more informed and data-driven decision in regards to the program, policies and the (memorandum).    

Q — I understand that you think it would be a redundant expense for the School Department to purchase and install a system for storing body cam footage, but can you explain the other concerns you have about not storing the footage at the police station?

A — As a means of explanation, as opposed to on the street, when officers are required to turn on the camera at the initiation of any law enforcement encounter, SROs only need to do so in cases of criminal activity, or incidents of disorderly or disruptive behavior. In other words, in those circumstances that may lead to a higher likelihood of a negative police-citizen (youth) interaction (i.e., those in which the school, the department and the public would have an interest in having that objective documentation).   

It is only in those very finite set of circumstances that we are looking for our SROs to record, in order to provide increased transparency, objective documentation of the interactions, two-way accountability, and a means to internally review these interactions that will only tend to protect the student, staff and the officer(s) involved. 

Having the School Department circumvent the current processes and assume control of evidentiary recordings taken of and by Police Department employees would be likely to prevent even the Police Department from having the ability to access and review incidents involving our employees, including those in which they’re taking action pertaining to criminal conduct, or even those in which the actions of our officer wearing the camera are called into question. These obviously cut against the goals and benefits of the body worn camera system.

The Police Department deals with protecting privacy rights, including those of juveniles, on a regular basis. We abide by state and federal law when it comes to record confidentiality and we will continue to do so in this regard. These laws would likely prevent the department from being able to even share recordings with the school department, except for particularized circumstances.   

As the chief, I would much rather be asked, “Why did you record that incident?” rather than the much more likely question, “Why did you not record that incident?” 

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