After a rash of fatal shootings by police, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs is calling for body-worn cameras by front-line officers to help restore its confidence in future independent investigations.
In a span of 40 days beginning on March 10, 2020, Winnipeg police officers shot and killed four people in the course of their duties.
With more than seven months left in the year, this frequency of deadly encounters already surpasses any year in recent memory. Since 2000, 19 people have been killed by Winnipeg Police Service gunfire. Of those, 12 were Indigenous.
In 15 of those cases, the Independent Investigations Unit of Manitoba concluded the officer’s actions were justified, leading to no charges. The remaining four are still under investigation.
The recent shooting of a 16-year old girl has raised concerns among Indigenous leaders who are suspicious of how this will be handled by the civilian-led IIU, whose investigators are generally former police officers themselves.
“Historically, it’s always been a difficulty. You have police policing the police. I believe that in order to bring forward some legitimacy you need to have an independent and objective analysis on these things,” said Arlen Dumas, Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.
Dumas says one solution that would help alleviate concerns from the community would be the mandatory adoption of body-worn cameras by police in the province.
“I think that would be completely helpful. In different respects, I think not only for the citizens and the people of the city but also for the members themselves. I think that would actually provide an opportunity for some independence and objective views if people had body cams,” Dumas said.
Projects scrapped, confidential report rejected use
In 2016, body-worn camera technology was explored in Winnipeg, as well as a number of other police forces across Canada. At the time, Winnipeg police set aside $1 million to run a pilot project but the idea was shelved amid a series of last-minute budget cuts.
Around that same time, the Manitoba Police Commission undertook a study of its own which advised against the adoption of cameras in the province. The only reference to this study that CBC News could find was in a response by Manitoba Justice to a recommendation made by chief provincial court Judge Margaret Wiebe following the 2018 inquest into the police-involved shooting of Craig Vincent McDougall.
Asked for a copy of the study, the commission referred the request to Manitoba Justice. The department has refused to provide a copy of the study, saying it “was provided as ministerial advice and is not being released outside of government.”
While Manitoba Justice says the police commission continues to monitor the use of body cameras, the Winnipeg Police Service has already decided to put the issue back on the table, albeit not anytime soon.
Police spokesperson Rob Carver says body cameras for its officers is part of their official budget plans post-2023.
Civilian investigators say body cam footage helpful
The civilian director of the Independent Investigation Unit says his investigators would welcome evidence gathered by police-worn body cameras.
“There’s no doubt that if body-worn cameras were in full force in Manitoba that they would be an asset to our investigative process. The existence of any evidence that would assist understanding the circumstance surrounding an interaction between police and individuals would be welcomed,” said Zane Tessler, a former criminal defence lawyer and prosecutor in Manitoba.
“It’s really another form of a witness to these circumstances,” he told CBC News.
But Tessler warns the devices don’t come with any guarantees. Video and audio quality, shaking, poor angles, not to mention the privacy and cost consideration, all weigh into the many reasons why they have not been widely adopted across the country, he said.
“They are not on their own magic bullets. People have to understand that the use of a body-worn camera is not necessarily 100 per cent determinative of what may or may not have occurred.”
Calgary cams provide ‘probative’ evidence: investigator
As the only major police department in Canada that has fully rolled out body-worn cameras, the Calgary Police Service has been among the only significant testbeds for their use to date.
The director of Alberta’s civilian-led police oversight agency says the video evidence gathered by the devices since they debuted in August 2019 has been a boon for her agency’s investigators.
“I am very comfortable stating that in the majority of investigations of critical incidents — both fatality and serious injury — involving [the Calgary Police Service], body-worn camera evidence has been available and probative,” said Susan Hughson, head of the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team.
“We have been able to assess much quicker the nature of the cases we are investigating. It provides a really good starting point and a perspective that allows for better decision making and better investigative tasking,” she said.
With about 75 investigations per year, she said video evidence has actually benefited the officers involved in the incident, demonstrating that they were acting lawfully in the vast majority of cases.
She said the footage can also serve to help foster a sense of trust and transparency by not keeping the public in the dark on all details of the event for months or even years while an investigation is underway, potentially dispelling rumours and false narratives.
“We have a position where we try to limit initial news releases to facts that we can initially independently confirm.… In these circumstances, body-worn cameras that can independently confirm the presence of a weapon can be important to ensure that the public has, at least, a reasonable and fair understanding of what is known at the outset,” she said.
A mandatory review of the Manitoba Police Services Act was launched in the spring of 2019 and is expected in the coming months. The Manitoba IIU says it has provided input, but did not bring up the issue of body-worn cameras as part of their submission.
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