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Questions remain as Winnipeg police prepare for body-camera pilot project

Technology's use raises questions from both sides of the thin blue line

The Edmonton Police Service began testing body cameras in 2012. The force will gradually implement them with front-line officers, particularly those in traffic and downtown units.


The Edmonton Police Service began testing body cameras in 2012. The force will gradually implement them with front-line officers, particularly those in traffic and downtown units.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/1/2016 (1631 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

As a Toronto jury deliberates whether a police officer is guilty of second-degree murder in the shooting of Sammy Yatim, the 18-year-old's death echoes across the country, renewing debate about equipping front-line police officers with body cameras.

In the wake of the public outcry following the 2013 shooting on a Toronto streetcar, a Supreme Court justice recommended Canadian police forces expand their use of body cameras, which are widely used in the United Kingdom and the United States, amid calls to quell police brutality.

Some see the cameras as the logical next step in law enforcement -- a basic technological device that can answer or eliminate questions about police conduct.

But the reality is not so simple.

With plans underway for Winnipeg Police Service officers to start wearing body cameras, questions remain about how effective they are in the pursuit of criminal justice.

Winnipeg is in the early stages of a pilot project that's set to begin next year. It's looking for guidance from police forces that have already used the technology. Police in Toronto, Hamilton, Edmonton, Calgary, Victoria and other locations have tested body cameras as a way to record evidence and keep public complaints against officers at bay.

Police Chief Devon Clunis


Police Chief Devon Clunis

"There are some other agencies who have gone out ahead of us, and we want to learn from what they've experienced," Winnipeg police Chief Devon Clunis said.

The police service expects to spend $1 million on the project. It hasn't yet decided on the parameters, including the type of hardware and software, which officers will wear the cameras or how long the project will last.

But does Winnipeg need a camera-equipped police force? That's a question the police union is raising as it waits for a detailed plan for the cameras.

Cameras might be more useful to police forces that don't have two officers -- two pairs of eyes -- responding to each call, Winnipeg Police Association vice-president George Van Mackelbergh said.

"This is one of those really groovy ideas that people cling to; it seems trendy. And don't get me wrong, it's not without value," he said. "But what I'm saying is, in the Winnipeg context, our responder cars are two-officer cars. Most of our units are two-officer units. Is it an expense that they really need?"

Van Mackelbergh said he's not opposed to body cameras, but said implementation and cost will need to be carefully considered.

"I'm not sure we're getting the bang for our buck that they think we're going to get for it. And I think the money could be used on other initiatives that would get more bang for your buck when it came to policing and service for the citizens of Winnipeg," he said.

The money could be better spent investing in the cadet program, hiring more crime analysts or purchasing traffic-enforcement technology such as licence-plate scanners, he said.

The officer mobile video system, as it's been dubbed, is just one of the $22 million worth of police capital projects budgeted for 2017 and accounts for a fraction of the roughly $264-million police budget.

The relatively low number of public complaints against Winnipeg police doesn't necessarily merit the use of body cameras, Van Mackelbergh said.

Winnipeg police received 51 use-of-force complaints from 2011 to 2013, the most recent statistics available from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies show.

Seven people complained about bias in policing from 2011 to 2013, and all of those bias complaints were resolved in favour of the police service.

In this image from video, a body camera worn by a Seattle police officer (AP Photo/Manuel Valdes)


In this image from video, a body camera worn by a Seattle police officer (AP Photo/Manuel Valdes)

But other police agencies that have used the cameras say the main purpose of the video footage is to collect evidence, not to guard against complaints. A study by the Edmonton Police Service found the use of body cameras didn't make a difference to the number of public complaints it received. Some police agencies that tested the cameras, including the RCMP, ultimately decided not to keep using them.

The Edmonton and Calgary police forces both started testing body cameras in 2012 and have decided to gradually roll out use for front-line officers, particularly those in traffic and downtown units.

Mary Stratton, a consultant to Edmonton police who was co-ordinator of the three-and-a-half-year pilot project, said the cameras were generally well-received by officers and the public, but there were concerns about how valuable the footage would be as evidence in court and about the limits of the technology (battery life, for example).

"The pilot report raises a lot of unanswered questions... with regard to the use of body-worn video in the courts and by prosecutors, the costs involved with doing that, and also there are privacy issues that come up with the use of the body-worn video. It's unclear, to some extent, what the law or the rulings around that would be, because as yet very little... has been shown in courts in Canada," Stratton said.

"There's an awful lot of promotion of the potential benefits of body-worn video, but there is less hard evidence -- because they are new."

In Calgary, officers who used the cameras reported they had a "civilizing effect" because people were more likely to behave politely if they knew they were being recorded, said Calgary Police Service Staff Sgt. Todd Robertson.

He said there has been an anecdotal rise in the number of cases that were resolved early because the accused and court officials knew video footage was available -- particularly in minor traffic cases where the driver decides not to contest the charges.

Edmonton's study reported similar results, but detailed statistics on how body-camera footage affects court cases in Canada do not yet exist.

It remains to be seen how much extra time -- if any -- recording, watching, maintaining and properly storing the video will add to the workload of police and Crown prosecutors.

"One of the things I've learned is that it's not as simple as just purchasing a camera and issuing them to officers," said Robertson, who is in charge of the Calgary police program.

"The technology is the easy part. What is going to take a long time, and what we spent most of our time on, was policy, privacy implications, contact and consultation with the public. We had to build a curriculum."

He said police forces looking to implement body cameras should investigate what other agencies have done, especially when it comes to writing policies about how the cameras will be used and how long footage will be stored "so they're not reinventing the wheel."

Body-camera video is a helpful tool that could speed up investigations into allegations of mistreatment by police, said John Hutton, executive director of the John Howard Society of Manitoba, which helps offenders reintegrate into the community after serving their sentences.

"From the perspective of our clients, I think the advantages would outweigh the disadvantages at this point," he said. "We need to be realistic. Having the cameras, it's probably more information, but it's not necessarily perfect information.

"We still may not know exactly what happened but, hopefully, we would know a little bit more and have a little more evidence."

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada released guidelines for body-worn camera last year. They caution police to inform the public of the recordings, to avoid recording bystanders and to enact clear policies on when officers are allowed to turn the cameras on or off. They say footage must be encrypted, properly secured and stored, and that more studies should be done before the footage is used in other ways, including for facial recognition.

Winnipeg privacy lawyer Andrew Buck, an associate with Pitblado Law, said police use of body-worn cameras raises many privacy concerns, including officers' own rights to privacy and the question of whether the footage will be publicly accessible under Manitoba's Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

"It's a lot more nuanced than simply, 'Can we get information about bad guys in court?' There are many other stakeholder interests that need to be considered, and I think that's why you see a proliferation of reports from the various privacy and regulatory bodies, because this stuff needs to be considered," Buck said.

No matter how comprehensive police's body-worn camera policies are, he said, "There are going to be grey issues."

"It's not like we're in uncharted waters here without any maps at all, but this may be the sort of thing where we've got to get through a few storms before we end up in a calm spot," Buck said.


Katie May

Katie May
Justice reporter

Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.

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Updated on Saturday, January 23, 2016 at 6:30 AM CST: Adds pictures.

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