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police and body cameras


April 20, 2016
By Louise Bond-Fraser and Ian Fraser

– Chief (Ret) William “Tony” Farrar, Rialto Police Department <1>.

Recent, high-profile incidents, some resulting in the death of a suspect <2>, have brought the question of police officers using body cameras to the fore. In most cases, there were either no cameras or only partial recordings from surveillance cameras or bystander’s cellphones. As a result of consequent, negative publicity, some police agencies have decided, or are considering, outfitting their officers with body cameras.

In Calgary, 800 to 1,100 police officers are already wearing body cams. Edmonton police conducted a three year pilot program but eventually put on hold a plan to roll out 60 cameras for traffic officers <3>. Toronto outfitted 100 police officers with body cameras in a year-long pilot project <4>.

The efficacy of using cameras on a regular basis is still a subject of debate.

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{Opponents}

Roy Kablin raises a a number of concerns from body cam opponents in his article, including that they may have a detrimental effect on the way police officers conduct their business. Officers might, for example, hesitate in a critical situation because of concerns about how their superiors and the public will perceive their actions.

Some suggest cameras will not allow officers to use due discretion <5> since they may feel compelled, for example, to issue a ticket instead of a warning <6>. Others believe the cameras invade their privacy since they may reduce or inhibit stress-releasing small talk between partners in the police car <7> .

Moreover, it has also been suggested that body cameras may be a physical impediment to officers in the performance of their duty, and could possibly cause physical harm during an altercation <8>. Opponents are also concerned about the cost of such an undertaking, both for equipment and training time <9>.

Of course, potential problems extend to dealing with the video once collected and the question of public confidentiality <10>. How will videos be used? How will they be stored and for how long? Storage opens video up to potential hacking, which could result in clips being released on social media <11>.

Still others worry that the cameras may be used for more than just recording daily activity. As John Lornic points out in his article :

<12>.

{Proponents}

Proponents, like Farrar, suggest that body camera use will result in a better rapport between police officers and citizens, as both parties will know they are being recorded <13>. It has also been suggested that they will help expedite cases and may help protect officers against spurious claims of police harassment and determine whether officers acted appropriately <14>.

{Our take}

There appear to be cogent arguments both for and against body cameras but we believe that, in this age of ever-increasing access to multi-media, body cameras will eventually be standard equipment. Arguments against them based on expense and risk of injury will become less valid as the cost and size of the equipment decreases.

In 2000, for example, a $500 Kodak “millennium edition” camera was boxy, solid and heavy and boasted a whopping one megapixel resolution. If you could even find one today, it would likely be hanging on the end of a keychain in a dollar store. Cameras will continue to become cheaper, smaller and less obtrusive.

There are other concerns such as whether cameras will affect the way police officer deal with situations but this should become less of an issue with appropriate training.

“Officers like stability, they like the same thing, but overall it’s not going to change too much in how we do things,” Cst. Neil Robinson of the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy Unit told reporter Wendy Gillis.

“When we’re in the community and people see us talking to somebody, there’s always another 10 people coming out with their cameras and recording us. So this is just another camera” <15>.

The proliferation of cameras is underscored by the findings of eMarketer, which notes the increased prevalence of smartphones.

<16>.

One might add that if everybody has a camera, as indeed seems to be the case, why would police not want one to show their point of view and the incident in its totality?

It is often said that the camera never lies, but this is not quite true. In a court of law, witnesses are sworn to tell “The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” A partial video may tell only a partial truth. People on the street, for example, will start to record an incident only when it becomes apparent something is happening and their attention is drawn to it.

The Toronto Police Service addressed concerns about invading privacy by instructing officers not to turn the camera on until they formally engage a member of the public – and to turn it off when the engagement ends. Failure to turn it off carried the possibility of disciplinary action.

“Every edit is a lie” <18>, said French-Swiss film director Jean-Luc Godard. If an officer is employing a body camera properly, then the possibility for misinterpretation, for both parties, is circumvented as the “whole truth” will be available for consideration. Indeed, one stated benefit of body cameras is fewer complaints against police officers wearing them.

Studies conducted in Washington D.C., Rialto and Aberdeen, Scotland appear to support the idea that there are fewer public complaints against police officers wearing body cameras. The reason has not yet been determined. It may be due to a change in the officer’s behaviour, the person who knows the officer is wearing a camera or a bit of both. It may also be that the reduction is a result of fewer false claims by the public <19>.

The Rialto study found that the number of use of cases where use of force was necessary was almost halved among officers wearing the cameras <20>.

Of course the whole question of how long recordings are to be kept is also a concern that needs to be addressed. Toronto police indicated it would keep videos shot during its pilot project for only about a year unless it was linked to an ongoing investigation <21>.

How the videos will be used is a key issue and to allay these concerns police agencies need to be very specific and public about their use, where they will be stored and security. Toronto police posted a “FAQ” page on its web site for people with questions about privacy issues <22>.

{Conclusions}

King Canute famously demonstrated that he had no power to hold back the tide. Police officers are in a similar position with body cameras. They are inevitable. The question, therefore, is how they will be implemented.

Certainly, we need to proceed cautiously. Their implementation should be a tool not only to ensure justice but also “to introduce transparency and accountability” <23>. Police agencies adopting body cameras should be as open as possible about their purpose, implementation and procedures or the public will be uncertain and suspicious and very little will change.

Used properly, body cameras should be an asset in the fight against crime. With the possibilities that such modern technology affords, the historical aphorism, “Not only must justice be done, it must be seen to be done” <24> has never had such literal backing.


1 Timothy Lee, Here’s why cops should be required to wear a lapel camera while on duty. (October 10, 2014), Washington Post. Found on August 14, 2015 at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2013/10/10/heres-why-cops-should-be-required-to-wear-a-lapel-camera-while-on-duty/

2 CNN Library, Trayvon Martin Shooting Fast Facts. (Wednesday February 11, 2015). Found on August 12, 2015 at: http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/05/us/trayvon-martin-shooting-fast-facts/;
Reagan Ali, Video: Florida cop charged for slapping homeless man. (April 7, 2015). Found on August 12, 2015 at http://www.mintpressnews.com/video-florida-cop-charged-for-slapping-homeless-man/204089/; Canadian Press, Toronto cop charged with murder in teen bus shooting. Found on August 12, 2015 at: http://thechronicleherald.ca/canada/1148509-toronto-cop-charged-with-murder-in-teen-bus-shooting; Jon Swaine & Oliver Laughland, Freddie Gary died after head ‘slammed into bolt in police van’, reports say. (Friday May 1, 2015). The Guardian. Found on August 14, 2015 at: http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/apr/30/baltimore-police-van-freddie-gray-stop; Carimah Townes, After video show him killing black man who was fleeing. (Tuesday April 7, 2015). Think Progress. Found on August 15, 2015 at: http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2015/04/07/3644139/sc-cop-charged-with-murder/; Reagan Ali, Video: Florida cop charged for slapping homeless man. (Tuesday April 7, 2015). Mint Press News. Found on August 15, 2015 at: http://www.mintpressnews.com/video-florida-cop-charged-for-slapping-homeless-man/204089/

3 Wendy Gillis, Police bodycams hit Toronto streets on Monday. (Friday May 15, 2015). The Toronto Star. Found on August 16, 2015 at: http://www.thestar.com/news/crime/2015/05/15/toronto-police-unveil-new-body-cameras.html; John Lornic, New era of policing: Will the benefits of body-worn cameras outweigh the privacy issues? (Friday, November, 21, 2014). The Globe and Mail. Found on August 14, 2015 at: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/new-era-of-policing-will-the-benefits-of-body-worn-cameras-outweigh-the-privacy-issues/article21698547/; Stewart Shaw & Debra Clark, Edmonton Police to roll-out used of body cameras. (Tuesday June 23, 2015). CTV News. Found on August 14, 2015 at: http://edmonton.ctvnews.ca/edmonton-police-to-roll-out-use-of-body-cameras-1.2435966

4 Josh Elliot, Toronto police body cameras raise privacy concerns, (May 18, 2015). Found on August 12, 2015 at: http://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/toronto-police-body-cameras-raise-privacy-concerns-1.2380593

5 Roy Klabin, The case against police body cameras. (May 13, 2015). The Daily Banter. Found on August 15, 2015 at: http://thedailybanter.com/2015/05/the-case-against-police-body-cameras/

6 Ibid

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid

9 Michael D. White, Police officers body worn cameras: Assessing the evidence. (2014). Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. Found on August 15, 2015 at: https://www.ojpdiagnosticcenter.org/sites/default/files/spotlight/download/Police%20Officer%20Body-Worn%20Cameras.pdf

10 Ibid; Klabin, Supra footnote 5.

11 Klabin, Supra footnote 5.

12 Lornic supra footnote 4.

13 Lee supra footnote 1; White supra footnote 7.

14 Ibid

15 Gillis supra footnote 4.

16 Over Half of Canada’s Population to Use Smartphones in 2015: More than 80% of 18-to 34-year-olds used a smartphone in 2014, January 6, 2015 emarketer.com

17 Gillis supra footnote 4.

18 Talk:Jean-Luc Godard found at: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Talk:Jean-Luc_Godard

19 White supra footnote 7

20 Barak Ariel, William Farrar and Alex Sutherland. The effect of police body-worn cameras on use of force and citizens’ complaints against the police: A randomized controlled trial, (2015), 31, Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 509; Lornic supra footnote 4.
21 Elliot supra footnote 3.

22 Elliot supra footnote 3.

23 Lornic supra footnote 4.

24 R v Sussex Justices, Ex parte McCarthy ([1924] 1 KB 256, [1923] All ER Rep 233)


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