I've long been puzzled by police naivete about the media. Most agencies deal with media daily and have developed familiar relationships with reporters. Despite this police managers struggle to appease the tyranny of special interest groups and overlook the hidden media agendas on the horizon.
Here is a good case in point. The Toronto Police Services Board received a rather in-depth study Sept. 22 on its year-long body camera pilot program. A media lovefest began immediately. Radio, newspapers and especially television spoke glowingly about the study, highlighting its positive aspects again and again.
Read beyond the positive excerpts and you find a balanced study which reflects some very disturbing, and even crippling, encumbrances. The report noted, for example, the significant increase in officer down-time, especially at the end of shifts when they had to catalogue their videos. In some cases it took as much as two hours.
Other negative aspects included the expected cost of storing, maintaining, retrieving and cataloguing video. These issues are not minor and the expense is likely to be monumental.
Problems encountered on the street included battery drainage and close quarter recordings blurred with the hyperactivity of an altercation. Sound issues and the psychological effect of officers feeling their discretionary powers were significantly reduced were also concerns. On this last point it was discovered the incidents of arrests and charges increased significantly as cautions dropped.
The significant budget increase required to roll out the body camera program and reduced cautions had me wondering why media folks were so fond of the concept. Most media reports (other than Canadian Press) strongly emphasized the positive points with nary a word about the downside.
Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders did voice his concerns but cushioned them with qualifiers that the negative issues were not insurmountable and that he supported the fundamental concept.
Most front-line police officers are cautious about getting too close to media folks. This is born from too many scoops obtained at the expense of some poor schmuck copper who thought he was talking "of the record." Most officers prefer to defer all questions to a higher authority. One wonders how this aspect of a street cop's personality might skew an accurate analysis of body cameras. Were the officers selected for the study of the mindset that new toys are more fun than old toys?
I save the worst to last. The report did not touch on the current obsession with 'reality TV.' Every network in North America and beyond is searching every nook and cranny of society, trying to 'get real' with audiences. Shows like COPS and Border Security attract millions of eye-balls and satisfy an insatiable appetite for seeing 'the real thing.'
Body cameras would be a heaven-sent gift to every TV network and visual junky on the Internet. I can not even begin to imagine all the angles a good television producer could come up with but I picture a tsunami of formal Access to Information Requests flooding in to every police agency with body cameras.
With big advertising dollars bankrolling the entire concept I can imagine, even in the simplest form, a request for the footage of every officer in a high crime neighbourhood. The requests would increase exponentially the first time something major happens.
Every muscle flex and nuance of facial expression would be analyzed by arm-chair quarterbacks across the country, of course. The media would be so giddy that executives would need underlings to nail their shoes to the floor to prevent them floating away.
Meanwhile, back at the police station, crime fighting would now take a backseat to fulfilling the numerous requests from media, lawyers and curious citizens with time on their hands. Officers would be forced to take courses on library cataloguing and video editing.
Even if my predictions never come to pass, there is one other factor to consider. The word of an officer will become meaningless in the courts. At one time the idea of background checks for candidate officers was to ensure they were first and foremost honest and secondly smart. An officer's credibility in giving viva voce evidence was paramount and not to be compromised.
With the advent of technology one can assume no court in the country will be happy hearing only from an officer. 'Where's the video?'
Every charge laid will have to be accompanied by video of the incident and woe betide the officer who can not produce it in pristine 1080P. If the capability is there the courts will demand it.
Are we ready for this brave new world?