Winnipeg City Council will soon consider a $32-million, multi-year proposal to add body-worn cameras for police.
On Friday, the Winnipeg Police Board unanimously called upon council to approve that investment and refer the final say on funding to the city’s 2022 budget process.
Winnipeg Police Service Chief Danny Smyth said the cameras would increase the service’s transparency and accountability, providing a visual record of officer interactions with the public.
"We all know the saying ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ and that kind of evidence is huge," said Smyth.
A WPS report notes the service has sought funding for body-worn cameras for more than a decade. A $1-million pilot project of the devices was slated for 2016 but later cancelled over its cost.
The report said adding the technology now would create valuable records that can display entire police interactions, "which will enhance community trust in police."
WPS estimates the project would have a capital cost of $6.8 million in 2022, which would reach a combined $32 million by the end of 2027, including video storage. Police expect the change would also create $717,000 of annual operating costs.
Smyth said police would buy separate cameras to record interactions, not the software some police agencies have added to existing smartphones. He said police have not yet determined exactly what type of recording devices officers should use. Some cameras let police turn recordings on or off, while others automatically start taking video whenever an officer pulls out a gun or Taser.
Smyth said the police service can’t afford the program within its existing multi-year budget, unless it cuts other services.
"There is no room in the (police) budget (to find) $32 million," he said.
Coun. Markus Chambers, chairman of the police board, said the cameras would create a valuable public record of police interactions.
"You can’t deny that it will increase accountability and transparency," said Chambers.
The councillor said he’s listened to demands from some advocates that council defund the police and instead invest more money into social services. However, he believes a visual record of police interactions is worth its cost.
"It’s not a panacea… but there are opportunities that we get from it, in terms of looking at the interactions that our service does have with citizens and, perhaps, modifying (police) training when it comes to use of force or unconscious bias," he said.
Chambers said he agrees with Smyth that city hall should pay for the cameras but suggests the city could seek provincial help, since officer video could be used as evidence in court.
Winnipeg police, and other law enforcement agencies, have faced growing scrutiny over the past year, including calls for council to cut the service’s budget.
Bronwyn Dobchuk-Land, who teaches criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg and supports police defunding, urged city council to reject the call to spend millions on body-worn cameras.
"(This is) a reform that puts more money into police department coffers. It gives them more resources, more capacity, more tools at the exact moment that communities are demanding those resources. I think it’s very, very egregious and disappointing and concerning," said Dobchuk-Land.
She argued video captured by body cams wouldn’t heighten police accountability, especially for cameras that officers have the power to turn on and off.
"It’s… a distraction from the issue of police accountability. It provides this false sense of accountability," she said.
The city’s executive policy committee is expected to cast the next vote on the body camera proposal on June 16, which would also require council approval.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.