Transparency limited if police control footage

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Yet another body-worn camera (BWC) pilot is underway in Quebec, this time with the Sûreté du Québec, the provincial police.  

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/05/2021 (441 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Yet another body-worn camera (BWC) pilot is underway in Quebec, this time with the Sûreté du Québec, the provincial police.  

Should the cameras be implemented provincially and in such cities as Montreal, consistent with recent trends across North America, the public should be aware that the cameras themselves will not increase transparency or accountability. Further, absent a fully independent third party that controls the footage, BWCs will only end up serving as public-relations tools for police to continue to exert influence and control over community perceptions of police work.  

The Service de police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) piloted BWCs between May 2016 and April 2017. The objectives of the SPVM pilot were to promote transparency, reinforce community trust and to promote officer safety. The SQ pilot and others in places such as Delta, B.C. are underscored by similar objectives — most notably, transparency into police work.  

In a January 2019 report, the SPVM determined that body cameras did not “unequivocally demonstrate” transparency, a finding that is also consistent with the scholarly literature on BWCs. There is little reason to believe, then, based on the available evidence, that the results of the SQ pilot will substantially differ with respect to improved transparency or accountability.  

A recent September 2020 systematic review of evidence from 30 U.S. studies of the effects of BWCs did not find strong support that the devices were necessarily beneficial in facilitating transparency or accountability, the two primary drivers for public calls for body cameras.  

Regarding community trust, the SPVM claimed in its 2019 report that the body cameras might instead erode public trust in police if camera footage was not released immediately following high-profile incidents, as is quickly becoming the norm in many parts of the U.S.  

The quick release of body-camera footage in the U.S. has given rise to unscrupulous public relations firms such as Critical Incident Videos LLC. Run by former TV news reporters, Critical Incident Videos serves the interests of law enforcement by editing raw BWC footage provided by police into flashy segments for news media. The concern is entirely with promoting the police version of events, not transparency or accountability, even in cases that involve death. 

Critical Incident Videos advertises a “fast turnaround time” to law enforcement agencies, with suggestions on how best to present “essential aspects” of selected raw footage complete with options for “opening and/or closing remarks” by a police spokesperson. In other words, the public sees and hears only what the police decide is relevant — the opposite of transparency.

A police spokesperson and video only provides a one-sided perspective of officer actions; there are no counter-narratives from defense lawyers or others as there would be in a courtroom.  

Large Canadian police services such as Toronto, Peel Region and the RCMP are in the process of rolling out cameras to thousands of officers. As a result, hundreds of hours of BWC footage will be recorded and stored for an indefinite period. While there is no evidence that Canadian police services are currently employing such editing services, firms like Critical Incident Videos may well be contracted in the future by Canadian law enforcement to consolidate BWC footage and produce favourable videos of police “actions” marketed for public consumption.

This would essentially capitalize on maintaining the police narrative as well as promoting the perceived semblance of transparency with carefully chosen clips of body camera footage.  

One sure-fire way to avoid unscrupulous firms like Critical Incident Videos in Canada is to ensure that all body-camera footage is entirely controlled by independent third parties.  

Expecting police to proactively release BWC footage of problematic incidents is unrealistic and naive. Inserting an independent third party (such as an ombudsperson office or a local police-oversight group) into this can lead to an increase in transparency. This third party should have unfettered access to all local police BWC footage and have the mandate to order the public release of video as they see fit (within legal confines and pending criminal investigations). 

There are a number of recent cases in which U.S. law-enforcement agencies have refused or restricted the release of BWC footage despite public outcry. Some states, such as North Carolina, have even legislated BWC footage as not being a public record, making it nearly impossible for citizens to access BWC video there. 

Real transparency is the independent non-police control and release of the complete unedited footage, without police commentary or public-relations spin to mislead or gaslight the public. 

The examples south of the border should serve as warnings for Canadians expecting instant transparency following BWC adoption. Transparency is not going to just miraculously happen with BWC implementation, especially if police continue to retain control of video footage.  

Christopher J. Schneider is professor of sociology at Brandon University and author of Policing and Social Media: Social Control in an Era of New MediaErick Laming is a PhD candidate in criminology at the University of Toronto focusing on police use of force, accountability, and Indigenous and Black community members’ experiences with police.

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