An online petition calling for Toronto police officers to be equipped with body cameras is approaching 100,000 signatures, highlighting renewed pressure on Canadian law enforcement to employ the devices.
But high costs associated with the technology — and warnings the devices only capture part of a police intervention — have so far left bodycams largely absent from Canadian cities.
“[The petition] basically shows me that everybody wants police to be held accountable for their actions,” said Kate Jandl of Waterloo, Ont., who created the petition. “And it showed me the great number of people who are behind this.”
Jandl decided to take action following the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, who fell 24 storeys from her apartment balcony in Toronto last month in the presence of police. The Special Investigations Unit, Ontario’s police watchdog, is investigating the 29-year-old’s death.
“There is absolutely no doubt or question that it would have been beneficial for Toronto police officers to have been equipped with body cameras,” said Knia Singh, the lawyer representing the family of Korchinski-Paquet.
Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders has promised to fast-track the body camera program, saying he’d like to roll it out by September.
“I have been pushing hard. I want this done now,” Saunders told reporters Thursday. “The people are talking, they want this. I want this.”
But there are reasons to question whether Saunders’s timeline is realistic. Toronto has yet to choose the company that will equip approximately 5,000 uniformed officers with body cameras.
According to meeting minutes from the Toronto Police Services Board, the decision was supposed to be made in September of last year, but has been delayed. The Toronto Police Service did not respond to a request from CBC News to know which companies are on the short list, or why the vendor selection was delayed.
Until a vendor is selected, Saunders said he’s unable to say how much the program will cost, but the Toronto Police Service’s 2020 operating budget request includes $2.5 million in new money to go toward a body camera program this year.
It’s been more than five years since Toronto police started looking into the devices. In 2016, after completing a pilot program using two different camera models on 85 officers, it was recommended the police department move forward with body cameras.
At the time, the board projected the program could cost $85 million over 10 years, and there were concerns around how to store the videos. In 2018, the force started looking for a vendor, after cloud-based storage became more readily available.
Singh said he has serious concerns about the fact body cameras have not yet been implemented.
“The budget delays and technical delays at the Toronto Police Board level are trivial compared to the importance of holding officers accountable,” he said. “Body-worn cameras protect officers and protect the public. It is a win-win situation.”
Mike McCormack, president of the Toronto Police Association, supports the use of body cameras and said the decision to implement them has not been rushed and is not a reaction to recent events.
“This is a discussion that we’ve been having for a number of years. It’s already baked. The ink has dried,” he said.
Few Canadian police services use body cameras
Despite a number of pilot programs in police forces across Canada, very few officers are currently equipped with the technology.
Calgary is the only large police force in Canada with body cameras on all of its front-line officers. Roughly 1,100 officers have been wearing the cameras since last summer.
But the program was not without delay.
Calgary police had previously committed to having cameras on officers by 2016. But, due to what the force calls “technical issues resulting in the compromise of officer safety,” it decided to pull the cameras, terminate its contract with the body camera supplier and start the procurement process over again.
Montreal’s police service ran a pilot program in 2016-2017, but declined to move forward with the technology, which would cost an estimated $24 million a year. This week, Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante changed course and said the city will get body cameras for the service as soon as possible.
The Vancouver Police Department’s research into body cameras goes back to 2012, but the force does not currently have body cameras on its officers, and has no plans to implement them, in part because it says the technology is “largely cost prohibitive.”
But the force also has other concerns.
“We continue to have concerns about how effectively body-worn cameras can accurately capture police interactions with the public,” Const. Tania Visintin said in an email to CBC News. “Video can be obstructed or show only a partial point of view when an officer is involved in a struggle or a dynamic situation.”
Visintin said the use of body cameras has risen in North America, in large part because of “controversial shootings” in the United States that led to demand for police accountability.
“Police in Canada have not experienced the same level of public demand for body-worn video,” she said.
Cameras not necessarily a fix-all solution
Calls for police to wear body cameras in Canada have grown. This week, more than 70,000 people signed an online petition asking for the devices for officers in Halifax, citing the need for police accountability and referencing the recent protests in the U.S. after the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed while being arrested in Minneapolis, Minn.
One of the fired police officers involved has been charged with second-degree murder, and three of his former colleagues are facing aiding and abetting charges.
“While our situation may not be as visibly problematic here in Halifax, we are not immune from the same issues of racial discrimination in police activity,” the Halifax petition says.
Halifax Regional Police looked into body cameras in 2017, but “did not see enough evidence of their effectiveness at the time,” said public information officer Const. John MacLeod in an email to CBC News. However, he said they “continue to monitor their potential.”
Lindell Smith, the first black city councillor to be elected in Halifax in 20 years, backs the use of body cameras.
“Anything that is going to protect citizens and protect officers, I’m going to support,” said Smith, who also sits on the local board of police commissioners.
Erick Laming, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto whose research focuses on police use of force and its impact on Indigenous and black communities, says while he’s not surprised by the demands for body cameras, they may not be the remedy to the public’s concerns.
“It’s a knee-jerk, Band-Aid solution right now. It’s not going to change anything,” he said. “We’re going to have these issues down the road, because there’s problems between police and the community. It’s not the body camera that fixes it.”
The RCMP, which has more than 20,000 members and provides police services at the federal, provincial and municipal levels, has run two body camera pilot programs. After conducting a feasibility study in 2016, the Mounties opted not to implement body cameras until “such time as available technology can meet its specific operational requirement,” said spokesperson Marie-Christine Lemire.
Last year, the RCMP’s commanding officer in Nunavut requested that RCMP national headquarters look into body cameras, in response to calls for police accountability from local politicians. Lemire said the “review is ongoing and will be provided to the commanding officer when complete.”
Nunavut’s V Division is the only RCMP detachment where body camera use is currently being reviewed.
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