Salem police will have body cameras by summer, publish more crime data and policies

(Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Salem Police Department leaders are going to supply officers with body-worn cameras, want to track data on the department’s crime response and crashes, and offer more thorough training dedicated to building trust, use of force and de-escalation.

That’s according to the department’s three-year strategic plan, released this week. Chief Trevor Womack and department leaders spent several months drafting the plan after gathering community feedback in a fall survey.

Womack said the agency has narrowed vendors for body cameras down to three and will make a decision after officers test them out, which he expects will begin mid-March.

Womack said officers are on track to have the cameras on hand between July and September.

The plan calls for a department “transparency portal,” which has been online for two weeks. The page includes data on crime and calls for service, the department’s budget, community surveys and independent assessments of the agency.

Womack said he’s been committed to working on the portal since he first took over as Salem’s police chief. 

“I’m hoping, since we’ve called it out in our strategic plan, we look back after these three years and we are much more transparent than we are today,” he said. “But it’s going to take some more work. We need some better technology, we need some more staff to be able to share that data with the community.”

The portal will eventually include the agency’s policies and procedures. Womack said the department is nearing the end of an accreditation process which occurs every two years and involves a review of policies. His goal for the calendar year is to “do a full policy review,” he said, and the department is working with a vendor to buy software to publish their updated procedures, likely over the next year.

An independent assessment of the Salem Police Department released last year found that the department could better use data, needed to create a strategic plan and should consider mandating all officers participate in Crisis Intervention Team training, a program where police work with mental health professionals. 

Womack said they will prioritize first rolling out policies that are more impactful for community trust, such as officers using force.

Revisions to policies and training curriculum will also be informed by meetings with a recently created “advisory council” to Womack, which includes a cross section of the community that has Black, Indigenous and people of color represented. He said they have so far met three times.

The department has committed to training all sworn officers in crisis intervention through a 40-hour advanced course. That means officers are often pulled from their normal duties for a week-long training course.

“You have to backfill the vacancy that creates in our patrol or in their normal jobs, it’s a logistical nightmare for us,” he said, “And right now with Covid, compounding that with absences and sick leave and so forth, it’s a real challenge right now.”

Womack said the department recently had to shut down three “special units” – its traffic unit, Community Action Unit and Strategic Investigations Unit – and have those employees handle calls for service to prioritize keeping officer training going.

Twenty Salem officers completed the 40-hour crisis intervention training last year, and Womack said he expects 20 or 30 more to complete it in 2022. The department was budgeted for 189 full time officers as of March 2021.

“There’s no set time. It’s not like we’re going to say, okay, every new officer is going to have this training within the first year or the two years,” he said. “We’re just committed to getting every officer through that training at some point, and we have to kind of go based on the staffing needs and where folks are assigned as far as when we’d actually be able to do that training.”

The department recently added training for “procedural justice,” which Womack said focuses on active listening and officers “treating everybody with dignity and respect regardless of the situation or the circumstances,” making fair and neutral decisions when responding to protests and other situations, and “acting in trustworthy ways” such as following through on their word.

The plan included creating a way to gather feedback from people who have an interaction with police to measure their progress in building trust. “I’m even thinking of things like, boy, wouldn’t it be nice to get more real-time information? After a call service is completed, we hand folks a business card with a QR code that links them to a customer service survey.”

Over the next three years, Salem police’s plan also said they will seek written agreements and establish procedures with community organizations.

Womack said those could include efforts like the existing relationship with the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency’s “Gladiator” program, which provides mentoring for high-risk youth.

“We have working relationships with partners already around the issue of homelessness or behavioral health or addiction, different service providers in the community, but they’re just kind of informal relationships,” he said. “The idea here is just to professionalize more and make sure that we develop (a memorandum of understanding), for example, with a partner to clarify our roles.”

He said the department will develop a system to measure its performance across all units. “Let’s say our traffic unit, we decide that we want to reduce injury collisions by a certain percentage, and we’ve identified some intersections that have high incidence of accidents and we want to start tracking how we’re doing there,” he said.

In the interest of focusing on serious traffic violations that cause crashes, like speeding or running a red light, he said Salem police will start making fewer traffic stops for equipment violations like non-working lights or a cracked windshield. 

“It’s not so much that we were focused on equipment violations already, because far less than 10% of our traffic stops already involve equipment violations. So this isn’t a big shift for us, but it’s worth calling out in the plan that what we’re focused on are the causes of injury collisions,” he said. “We want to keep our community safe. And for me, traffic safety, that means lowering the number of fatalities – vehicular pedestrian and bicycle fatalities, and also the non fatal injury collisions where people are seriously hurt.”

Measuring performance, Womack said, could also mean regular internal audits to randomly check evidence inventory and document whether it’s been properly handled and filed away.

He said the Salem police’s Professional Standards Unit will now be responsible for handling all personnel complaints, use of force audits and other accountability measures within the department.

The department for years has shared use of force audits with the Community Police Review Board. “But I think the public generally never sees those or is not aware of those,” he said. “There are certain things that we already do that are very good, best practice, accountability measures that we want to start posting on our transparency portal.”

Womack said the department will also establish a process to identify potential concerns about an officer – such as multiple crashes and personnel complaints – through their performance evaluations and intervene “before there’s any sort of major problem that develops.” He said the idea is not groundbreaking or new, but currently doesn’t exist within the department.

“We want to make sure we we intervene somehow in a non-disciplinary way, whether providing some training or counseling or connecting that officer with our wellness network for peer support, or whatever needs might need to be met to try to make sure that the officer stays on the right path before it turns into some sort of disciplinary problem,” he said.

Womack also said he wants to draft and follow a protocol for issuing press releases in a timely manner, as opposed to relying on an informal, unwritten policy internally.

On Monday, the Salem Police Department sent out a news release about the death of Richard Meyers following a car chase that didn’t explicitly say whether officers had shot the man or if he was armed.

Womack said he does not control what information is released because Marion County’s district attorney brought in the Oregon State Police to investigate the use of deadly force against Meyers.

Regarding public criticisms of the department’s opaque statement on the shooting, Womack said he never likes to have a press release that leaves people confused or wondering what exactly happened. Womack said those facts will be shared at some point after a grand jury ruling, “which will answer all the questions.”  He also said the department doesn’t want to put out certain information when the officers involved haven’t yet been interviewed.

“My message to the community would be that we do have to ask for patience for those very reasons. It’s complex, and in the interest of making sure that we have a completely fair objective investigation, sometimes we just have to hold back on the facts, even though we’d love to share them,” he said.

Correction: This story was updated to reflect that Womack said he expects 20 or 30 Salem officers to complete 40 hours of crisis intervention training in 2022, not 2021. Salem Reporter regrets the error.

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

JUST THE FACTS, FOR SALEM – We report on your community with care and depth, fairness and accuracy. Get local news that matters to you. Subscribe to Salem Reporter starting at $5 a month. Click I want to subscribe!