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Metrolinx resumes body-worn cameras plan after government ‘pauses’ program

Click to play video: 'Mixed opinions over police body-worn cameras in Canada'
Mixed opinions over police body-worn cameras in Canada
RELATED: The Toronto Police Service is expanding its use of body cameras on officers, hoping to have more than 2,300 officers trained to use the devices by the fall. But despite potentially more transparency, there are doubts on whether the devices will deter police abuses like racial profiling. Ross Lord explains – Feb 7, 2021

As transit routes in Toronto experienced a wave of violence in early 2023, a long-established plan to equip GO Transit fare inspectors with body-worn cameras was suddenly halted, after the Ford government ordered Metrolinx to pause the safety-focused plan.

The provincial transit agency began planning to offer some of its staff body-worn cameras as early as 2021 and started searching for a company to deliver the safety measure in the first half of 2023.

The program, however, was put on hold even before the contract work was finished through an order directly from the Ministry of Transportation.

“Understanding that this program is currently on pause based on MTO direction,” an internal email between Metrolinx staff obtained by Global News using freedom of information laws said.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Transportation confirmed to Global News the government had “asked Metrolinx to pause” work on finding a company to deliver the program “to undertake additional assessments including exploring linkages with other government procurement already in place.”

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MTO officials told Global News work on the program has since resumed.

The pause, however, sheds new light on the Ford government’s relationship with the provincial transit agency and the control it has over how it operates and communicates.

After first winning election in 2018, Ontario Premier Doug Ford told his transportation minister to “fundamentally” review Metrolinx’s role, something many associated with the organization believe has come with significantly tighter political control.

The pause ordered by Queen’s Park began in the spring of last year and lasted a few months before Metrolinx was told by the Ford government it could resume work sometime in the early fall, sources told Global News.

Restarting the program involved issuing a request for proposals to find a company to deliver body-worn cameras to the transit agency.

Metrolinx begins considering bodyworn cameras

The idea of equipping Metrolinx’s fare inspectors with body cameras appears to have been introduced in the transit agency’s 2021-2022 business plan.

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The move was framed as part of a broader push to increase “oversight and accountability” through the network and to grow its fare inspection program.

Two years after its conception, however, the body-worn cameras program was paused by the province amid a series of violent incidents that were reported on Toronto’s streetcars, buses and subways.

High-profile incidents plagued the city’s transit system at the beginning of 2023 putting the issue under the spotlight.

Two women were stabbed on a streetcar — one fatally — in January, while a TTC driver was also allegedly shot in the face with a BB gun. A teenage boy was seriously injured in a stabbing on a bus in January, and in March a Grade 11 student died after an apparently random subway stabbing.

Sources with direct knowledge of Metrolinx operations said the rash of violence forced officials with the TTC to consider body-worn cameras and other measures to protect its own staff.

At the time, sources said, there were fears among transit officials that Metrolinx going to the market for its bodyworn cameras plan — with a far bigger and more valuable contract than Toronto — would see Toronto’s bid fail.

Sources said officials felt companies would compete for the more valuable Metrolinx contract instead of the request for Toronto transit to equip its staff with cameras.

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Other sources with knowledge of the pause contend that the province was keen to avoid associating Metrolinx’s commuter GO buses and trains with the broader issue of transit safety and that timing played a key factor in the decision.

Some feared rolling out body-worn cameras, which are also part of an accountability strategy over issues like racial profiling, could see the service linked with the problems on Toronto’s subways and streetcars.

Click to play video: 'TTC tests body cameras as part of new use of force policy'
TTC tests body cameras as part of new use of force policy

The pause of Metrolinx’s plan ended around September 2023, with plans now continuing for body-worn cameras on fare inspectors.

“Through this program, we aim to: further enhance the safety of staff, customers, and the public; and strengthen trust in our interactions with individuals across our network,” a Metrolinx spokesperson told Global News.

“We are currently in the evaluation stage and costs will be determined once this process is finalized. Metrolinx has worked closely with the Ministry of Transportation and our other government partners to reach this important milestone.”

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Toronto transit adds bodyworn cameras

Despite the surge of violence, the TTC’s plan to add body-worn cameras to its network did not materialize in the spring.

Months later, in December 2023, a report presented to the TTC board recommended approving over $800,000 for a body-worn camera pilot for fare inspectors as part of a trust, safety and accountability push.

The recommendation came after a review of fare enforcement around the world found “an increasing number of enforcement agencies” in Ontario and beyond are turning to body-worn cameras for their revenue protection staff.

The report was deferred pending a further update at the board meeting. In early April, the TTC announced it would finally be moving ahead with a limited bodyworn cameras pilot for some of its staff.

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