Portland School Board prepares to vote on body-camera policy

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The Police Department and the Portland Public Schools are getting closer to an agreement on the use of body cameras by school resource officers at Portland and Deering high schools. 

The police chief and superintendent of schools have been negotiating for several months after a tense meeting last fall where concerns were raised about student privacy, ownership of the video recordings, and when cameras would be activated. Some people were concerned that if stored at the police station, the footage could be shared with other agencies, such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The superintendent and police chief have submitted a new draft memorandum that sets parameters for sharing the recordings and activating the cameras, and requires SRO training. It was presented to the School Board at a workshop March 3 and is scheduled for final action on March 17. 

Portland Police Chief Frank Clark said school resource officers believe their body cams would not be used more than once a month, and often not at all.

The board had opposed storage of footage of students at the police station, with members arguing the recordings should be treated as educational records with strict privacy protections. 

Chief Frank Clark argued then that the Police Department already had the expensive system needed to securely store the footage, and said he was concerned storing the footage at the school would prevent the Police Department from accessing the videos to review incidents where criminal activity may have occurred or the behavior of their officers is questioned.  

The draft agreement gives the police ownership of the videos and requires that footage must be downloaded daily onto the secure server and deleted from the camera. Footage would be stored for 385 days unless flagged for longer retention.

The school resource officer program has been in place in the two high schools for nearly 20 years, and the existing memorandum of understanding has not been revised since 2015. After the Police Department equipped its officers with body cameras in 2018, it requested revisions that would allow its officers to activate their cameras inside the schools.  

The School Board did not accept the amendments at the Nov. 12, 2019, meeting, and voted unanimously to ask the officers to refrain from using the cameras until an agreement was negotiated. The department complied with the request. 

The ACLU of Maine praised the board for its decision at the time, saying in a statement that body cams, first adopted to make police accountable and citizens safer, are now a threat to student privacy and safety, and that police in schools leads to more juvenile arrests, convictions and prison time. 

“Body cams in schools make this bad situation worse,” Maine ACLU Policy Counsel Michael Kebede wrote. “Behavior that was once dealt with by school administrators might be compiled in one police computer. Footage of kids being kids will now be used to prosecute them as criminals.” 

The memorandum states that recordings may not be released without parental permission except to juvenile justice or prosecutorial authorities. 

In cases where footage is shared, the department “will request that these other juvenile justice or prosecutorial authorities not further release the video footage beyond that necessary to effectively adjudicate the juvenile criminal matter” without written parental consent, or a subpoena, search warrant or court order. 

Clark said the two entities’ recordings would be shared with are the Cumberland County district attorney and the assistant state attorney general for juvenile corrections. 

Videos may be viewed at the request of the superintendent, “for legitimate need,” and approval of the police chief according to applicable laws. The parent or guardian of a minor in a video may also request to view it. 

Activation

While police officers activate their cameras for any potential law enforcement encounter with the public, the draft agreement calls for SRO cameras to be activated only in specific instances: when responding to suspected criminal activity or in circumstances that may escalate to the type of negative interaction that would need objective documentation. 

When the board reviewed this provision in November it said officers would activate their 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.” Several members felt the language was too broad. 

Clark said at the March 3 workshop that he asked the SROs to track how many times they were in situations where they would activate their cameras if the agreement was in place. Because of the high standard, he said, they reported that they would have activated them no more than once a month. 

The current draft keeps the original parameters, but inserts clarifying examples of when a camera would be activated.

Suspected criminal behavior includes incidents that may lead to searches, seizures, arrests, interrogations or the issuance of summonses. Incidents that are “likely to involve disruptive, adversarial or confrontational behaviors,” are “those that have a higher likelihood of a negative interaction or the need for de-escalation, providing a higher interest by all parties for objective documentation.”

SRO training 

The draft agreement also creates a new requirement that SROs complete a 40-hour course with the National Association of School Resource officers that focuses on building positive relationships with students and staff. 

The board discussed the gray area between potential criminal activity that would warrant SRO involvement and disciplinary issues that would be the responsibility of the school administration. Currently, the line between those is determined by the subjective decision of the SRO in the moment of the incident. 

Board member Emily Figdor raised concerns about the storage of incident recordings that are suspected to rise to the level of criminal activity but do not, and are dealt with by the school as a disciplinary issue. When Clark responded that the recording would still be retained at the Police Department on a “parallel track,” she asked, “Are we creating a criminal record of disciplinary action?”  

Board Chairman Roberto Rodriguez suggested adding clarifying language and gave the example of a policy in Massachusetts that defines incidents where an SRO should be involved in school discipline as those involving real, substantial harm or threat of harm to the physical or physiological or psychological well being of other students, school personnel or members of the community, or a real substantial harm or threat of harm to school property.

Some board members praised the work of the SROs at Portland and Deering high schools and said they are pleased the program is in place, but others still had concerns about the program as a whole. The memorandum of understanding references a separate agreement, “Relations with School Resource Officers and Law Enforcement Authorities,” that will also be reviewed by the board. 

In closing the workshop, Rodriguez said, “even when we here in Portland have model (memorandum), phenomenal police officers, a supportive superintendent, administrators that get it, even when we have all of those pieces in place, we are still normalizing a practice that in many, many other districts, and many, many other schools produces significant problems, real issues. 

“We need to understand that we are part of a system,” he said, “and by normalizing these practices, we miss an opportunity to really shed light on something that’s incredibly problematic.”