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COMMENTARY: Justin Trudeau faces police reform test as body camera debate begins

George Floyd protests: Trudeau to push premiers on equipping police with body cameras
WATCH: (June 8) Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he’s planning to push provincial premiers to equip police with body-worn cameras as a rapid, substantive solution to allegations of racism and brutality.

The death of George Floyd has triggered protests against police misconduct not only across the United States, but in Canada, too.

As the debate rages, Canada is being forced to look at police training and oversight, as authorities investigate many examples of alleged police brutality in our own country.

Now Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is pressing the RCMP and provincial governments on issues like body-worn police cameras to monitor officers’ on-the-job behaviour.

“It is something that is, in my opinion, what we need to move forward with,” Trudeau said this week, confirming he raised the issue of body-worn cameras with RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki.

READ MORE: Movement for B.C. police to wear body cameras builds steam amid anti-racism protests

Body-worn police cameras are still rare in Canada, where Calgary remains the only major Canadian city where front-line cops are equipped with the devices.

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Supporters of the cameras say they can reduce the number of misconduct complaints, increase public safety and enhance confidence and trust in police officers.

But while few governments and police organizations are formally opposed to the cameras, actually getting them into regular use in Canada is easier said than done.

The Canadian Police Association, the country’s major advocacy group for police officers and their unions, says the issue is a complicated one.

“The real questions will be around the policies that govern the use of body-worn cameras,” said Michael Gendron, the association’s director of communications.

Those policies will include fundamentals like the rules around when the cameras are switched on and off.

“Some will say this is easy: always on,” he said, while listing a number of problem areas where the answer is less clear.

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Will it be OK for officers to film vulnerable people like homeless drug addicts or victims of domestic violence? What about videotaping minors? Could an officer turn off the camera during private moments, like taking a personal phone call from a spouse or child?

“Who will have access to the footage?” he asks. “Will it be subject to Access-to-Information requests? How long will the data have to be retained?”

Then there are complex legal questions. Will an officer be allowed to review his or her own camera footage before answering questions from internal investigators or testifying in court?

Could the cameras generate massive new cost pressures from maintenance, data storage and gigabytes of evidence subject to Crown and defence disclosure rules?

“None of these problems or questions are insurmountable,” Gendron said. “But they are complex.”

I would say that’s an understatement.

And the complexities around body-worn cameras could just be one of many challenges around police reform.

READ MORE: Halifax Regional Police ‘looking into’ body cameras after online petition hits 70,000

Jagmeet Singh, the federal NDP leader, is calling on Trudeau to ramp up police training and oversight.

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“There is an ongoing culture of conflict between racialized people — Indigenous people, Black people — and the police,” Singh told me, adding he wants police better trained in use-of-force techniques and an end to racial profiling, or “carding,” of suspects stopped and questioned by police based on the colour of their skin.

But police associations are already pushing back, saying police already receive comprehensive training and racial profiling has been studied and addressed.

“The whole carding issue has been well examined and there have been numerous reports written about it,” Tom Stamatakis, a veteran Vancouver police officer and president of The Canadian Police Association, told me.

“The practice of carding in this country has effectively been prohibited.”

But Singh disagreed.

“People get arbitrarily detained on a regular basis,” Singh told me.

“We’re not talking about hypothesis — we’ve got the evidence,” he added, pointing to studies of police stops in Toronto.

“They showed very clearly that despite being a small percentage of the population, Black people were stopped more often. And these are people that had no charges laid.

“That is an ongoing practice.”

READ MORE: Black female Toronto police inspector encourages action, change in wake of George Floyd’s death

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Get set for more of this debate in the days ahead, along with calls to defund police departments while drastically overhauling their mandates.

Trudeau, who took a knee at an anti-racism rally last week, clearly wants to be seen as an agent of reform.

But whether he delivers much beyond sound bites and photo ops will be a test of political will and money, when the reforms could be difficult and costly.

Mike Smyth is host of ‘The Mike Smyth Show’ on Global News Radio 980 CKNW in Vancouver and a commentator for Global News. You can reach him at mike@cknw.com and follow him on Twitter at @MikeSmythNews​.