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Pilot project after pilot project has signalled police interest in exploring the technology — ending with the decision, in most cases, to forgo the cameras
The dashcam video begins at a nondescript intersection, as the car races through a yield sign. It pulls up next to a commercial plaza. Other police cars are already parked on the street, as officers are racing towards a grassy stretch. One cop radios the others: There’s a “native male” running.
He comes into view, bolting from the officers — then he dives down, putting his hands on the back of his head as he goes, interlocking his fingers once he lands. One officer slows, pointing his firearm at the man. Another officer hangs back after he goes down. But one officer leaps at him, landing his knee in the square of the man’s back. He begins punching. And he doesn’t stop. The man lies there, unmoving.
The video cuts out abruptly as the officer continues to rain blows on the man. An officer’s body-worn microphone continues. “I can’t breathe,” the man is heard saying, over the unmistakable sound of punches being brought down on him.
The scene is chaotic, but the results are clear. While several officers appear to be acting reasonably, even restrained, one officer deliberately and repeatedly assaulted the man. The victim, who was Indigenous, sustained broken ribs and a collapsed lung. He ran because he had taken drugs earlier in the day.
The combination of body-worn microphone and dashcam, even if it was suddenly switched off (the judge called that “concerning and troubling,”) helped convict the officer on two counts of assault. The other officers involved were acquitted.
It wasn’t long after the trial, in 2018, that Calgary police finally moved forward on a plan to equip more of its officers with body-worn cameras, upgrading from the microphones. “It’s supporting what they do every day and it’s, at times, a calming measure. It’s doing everything we wanted it to,” then-Chief Steve Barlow told the Calgary Sun last year.
These body-worn cameras, usually affixed to the officer’s lapel, have now been rolled-out for all members of the police service, and the new chief says they are even considering publicly releasing the footage in high-profile cases, such as an officer-involved shooting that occurred in June.
It looks like a coup for police accountability. But Calgary is a rarity in Canada. While the use of body-worn cameras has become increasingly common in the United States, police departments in Canada have been far less supportive. Newspapers have run stories on pilot project after pilot project, signalling police departments’ interest in exploring the technology. Far less coverage has been dedicated to the decisions to, in most cases, forgo equipping officers with the cameras.
Take Toronto: Its police service ran a pilot project in 2016, which found general support for the cameras and, despite the challenges, recommended adopting the technology. The department ignored that recommendation, and hasn’t used them extensively since. Last month, the service asked for proposals from possible vendors for the equipment, but still hasn’t committed to fitting its officers with any sort of recording device.
While local police deliberate, one of the biggest opponents has been the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
The RCMP had deployed the body-worn cameras on a limited scale in two different pilot programs, in 2010 and 2013, before ordering a full-scale feasibility study to determine if the technology would work for the force.
The RCMP, which operates both nationally and serves as the local police force for large parts of the country and which represents about a third of all officers in Canada, tried a few different providers. In 2015, they put out a list of requirements for the bodycam technology — asking for, among other things, at least five hours of battery life, 16 gigabytes of memory, and the ability to survive extreme cold.
The requirements matched, almost perfectly, a device made by Axon, the same company that sells the Taser. Axon’s body-worn camera boasted even longer battery life and storage.
And yet the RCMP announced, a year later, that “following an extensive feasibility study … the current technology poses several challenges such as limited battery life and lack of camera durability.” They would delay the implementation of body-worn cameras “indefinitely.”
Yet the report itself , which was never released publicly, tells a different story. It found that, despite some challenges, the technology would be worthwhile to let police “illustrate improved accountability and transparency.”
It echoed the sentiments of many others, who are not normally onside with police leadership. That year, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association wrote that “if employed with caution and discretion, the body cameras could provide greater transparency for citizens and law enforcement alike.” The Privacy Commissioner of Canada even issued directives on how police forces can use the technology and still respect citizens’ rights.
That internal report specifically recommended permanently deploying the technology to one of the RCMP’s 15 regional divisions. All the problems identified by the RCMP “can be successfully addressed with policy guidance, training and sufficient data storage,” the report found.
And yet the RCMP ignored that recommendation. And there seems to be no intent to change their tune.
An access-to-information request, filed to obtain any internal memos or documents pertaining to body-worn cameras over the past year-and-a-half came back with a telling response: No such records existed.
A spokesperson for the RCMP confirmed that “there has not been any significant changes” since 2016, but insisted that “we are constantly researching new equipment to be used in operational settings, and we will continue to assess new technologies as they become available.”
Asked what that research entails, the RCMP insisted they “[maintain] contact with various manufacturers who keep us up-to-date as the technology evolves.” Asked for a list of consultations or meetings with potential suppliers, the RCMP declined.
“To be clear, the RCMP is not refusing to equip our officers,” the spokesperson said in response to follow-up questions, citing privacy, storage, weather conditions, and cost as reasons for not moving forward with the program. “The RCMP needs to have confidence in the product and ensure that any choice of technology justifies the investment.”
It’s unclear just what outstanding problems remain. The Axon line of body-worn cameras now boast a battery life of 12 hours and storage of up to 64gb — multiples more than the RCMP’s requirements, from 2015.
In a statement, Axon was deferential to the police departments’ hand-wringing.
“We appreciate that police services need to take the necessary time to pilot new products and technology before deciding to commit to that investment, and encourage them to do so,” a spokesperson said in an email.
Researchers continue to show the technology works: To catch bad cops; but also to instil trust from the public; to provide valuable evidence in court; and to clear vexatious allegations against officers of wrongdoing.
While various studies have found different degrees of success when it comes to bodycams, some research done in Boston and Las Vegas shows that when officers wear cameras, complaints against them went down. It’s hard to say whether that’s because officers behave better when there is video evidence, or whether the recording devices discourage false complaints. Either way, the existence of a video record significantly simplifies the complaint process against police.
Last year, researchers from Lakehead University conducted a study of Durham Regional Police Service officers who employed the body-worn cameras during random impaired-driving checks. Across the board, drivers who interacted with an officer wearing a bodycam perceived them to be more polite and trustworthy.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019