Less than a week after thousands took to the streets of Halifax to protest racism and police brutality, Halifax Regional Police say they’re reconsidering calls for their officers to wear body cameras.
An online petition asking the force to adopt the practice has now attracted more than 70,000 signatures. No in-depth analysis has been done on the proposal, but Cst. John MacLeod said the HRP is open to any tool that could improve its accountability.
“We continue to look into these tools to determine what their value is to us,” he told Global News on Friday.
“We are willing to — and we are looking into whether or not that will be a valuable tool and help to improve the accountability of our officers and our trust within the public.”
Halifax Regional Police rejected the idea of body cameras three years ago, determining that the cost-benefit analysis fell short at the time. A report on their decision in 2017 estimated over $1.4 million per year in direct and labour costs for a five-year pilot with 50 cameras.
Community activist, poet and professor El Jones said she’s encouraged by the momentum for accountability embodied by the Change.org petition, but she’s urging the public to consider all of the costs that come with putting surveillance technology on every officer.
“This is where the frontier of policing is, it’s in technical policing and surveillance,” she explained.
“So I’m very, very wary of initiatives that turn over more surveillance powers, more watching powers, and more money into those kinds of budgets for the police to survey, particularly Black communities.”
Earlier this year, Global News confirmed that Halifax Regional Police had used a controversial facial recognition software to conduct what it called “open data searches.” It suspended the practice after a data breach within the company, Clearview AI.
That company is now under investigation by Canada’s privacy commissioner.
Apart from concerns about privacy and keeping tabs on visible minorities, Jones said there’s little evidence to suggest body cameras change police behaviour.
“The other day I saw someone arguing that George Floyd’s killer could not have committed murder because, ‘Who would kneel on someone’s neck for nine minutes knowing the cameras were on? So obviously, he didn’t have the intent,'” said Jones.
“So when it’s not caught on camera, the argument is you don’t know what really happened, but then when it’s caught on camera, it’s like, ‘Who would commit this violence when it’s caught on camera, so obviously something else is going on.'”
Jones also expressed concern about the financial cost of body cameras at a time when calls to “defund police” and pour those dollars into community services have reached an all-time high.
Halifax Mayor Mike Savage said the Board of Police Commissioners has a role to play in that conversation; from a budgetary point of view, he said there’s a “big appetite to do whatever we can do show we’re serious” about accountability.
“We are putting money into community services,” he told Global News. “I think we’re doing a lot of things, but we’re not doing enough obviously to assure people — particularly those in the African Nova Scotian community that things will change. And they have to.”
He said body-worn cameras for police is an “ongoing discussion,” while the HRP said as part of its own analysis, it would turn to other jurisdictions to see whether the cameras have been effective.
With files from Karla Renic and Alexander Quon