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Police body cameras in Canada: How common are they and do they reduce excessive force?

The effectiveness of police body cameras
The RCMP is pledging to have some officers use body cameras, in the wake of clashes between police and racialized people, and the renewed outcry against police brutality. As Abigail Bimman reports, there isn't much data to prove the equipment will be effective in Canada.

Recent violent and fatal incidents involving police in Canada and the United States have prompted louder calls for more widespread use of body cameras by police in order to combat alleged brutality and racism.

But experts remain at odds over whether those cameras will improve transparency and accountability in police interactions with civilians.

In Canada, calls for more body cameras have been directed at both local and national police following the death of a Toronto woman who fell from her balcony after officers were called to her apartment in late May, as well as the violent arrest of an Inuk man by an RCMP officer in Nunavut.

George Floyd protests: Trudeau to push premiers on equipping police with body cameras
George Floyd protests: Trudeau to push premiers on equipping police with body cameras

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Monday he wants the RCMP to use body-worn cameras and that he will push Canada’s premiers later this week “about the need to move forward on measures like body cameras” within provincial and municipal police services, too.

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On Tuesday, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair — who formerly served as Toronto’s police chief — said the cameras can be useful.

“I also know from some experience that video evidence can be the best possible evidence to give us all and the public a better understanding of exactly what transpired,” Blair said.

READ MORE: Body cameras for Ottawa police on the table for next budget, board says

The cameras aren’t widely used in Canada at this time, but advocates and policy experts have mixed reviews on how effective they’d be if deployed more extensively.

Where are body cameras used in Canada?

The Calgary Police Service is so far the only major police force in the country that has equipped all its front-line officers with the tool. The police force implemented the service-wide roll out last year.

On the east coast, Fredericton equipped a handful of its officers with body-worn cameras back in 2018.

READ MORE: Trudeau to push premiers on equipping police with body cameras

Other police departments have piloted body-worn cameras but haven’t moved forward with their use. Some, like Toronto, did recommend their use, but others didn’t — like Montreal, who cited the cost.

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But in the last few weeks, many municipal police chiefs have pledged to revisit the tool. Outgoing Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders has said he’s trying to speed up the roll-out of the cameras following the death of 29-year-old Regis Korchinski-Paquet.

Just west of the city, Peel Regional Police said last week they’ve kick-started a process to implement the cameras, citing recent events.

In Montreal, renewed pressure is mounting on the city to equip police with body-worn cameras. Meanwhile, Quebec’s provincial police force bought 169 body cameras and 33 dashboard cameras three years ago but has yet to use them, as Global News reported on June 5.

Body cameras purchased by SQ in 2017 sit unused
Body cameras purchased by SQ in 2017 sit unused

In Ottawa, where the head of the police union supports using body cameras, the police service said it will consider the tool in exploring ways “improve public trust.” Meanwhile, residents from Nova Scotia to British Columbia have signed petitions called for their police force to adopt the cameras.

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Cameras would serve as deterrent, rebuild trust: advocates

Alain Babineau, a former RCMP officer and advisor with the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations, has long pushed for police use of body cameras in Montreal.

He argued they’re an “essential piece of equipment for policing in 21st century” for two major reasons.

There’s an “erosion of public trust” in police at this time and the cameras can only serve to “enhance” trust in law enforcement, Babineau said.

In addition to that, recording police officers’ interactions with the public would deter bad behaviour, he argued.

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

That said, Babineau emphasized that “very rigorous policy” needs to govern the use of the cameras, including whether they remain on at all times or are automatically triggered on and off.

Tracy Wing, whose son Riley Fairholm was shot and killed by Quebec provincial police in the Eastern Townships in 2018, said she favours wider police use of cameras — on dashboards at the very least.

She agreed the cameras could encourage both police officers and citizens to keep their behaviour “in check” and provide an additional account of how events transpired.

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“There was really no other account other than what the police officers say,” she said of her son’s death on Tuesday.

“I feel like I don’t understand why they shot him, especially in sixty-one seconds.”

Data on outcomes ‘inconclusive’, expert says

However, other experts remain skeptical about the cameras’ effectiveness.

While studies of body-worn cameras have been conducted globally, the data that’s out there is “inconclusive,” said Alexander McClelland, a post-doctoral fellow in the University of Ottawa’s department of criminology.

“The data is inconclusive to show that body cameras decrease violent incidents with police,” McClelland said, noting the data for Canada remains limited.

READ MORE: RCMP chief to seek ‘broader rollout’ of body cameras in wake of anti-racism protests

The University of Toronto examined 10 camera experiments in six jurisdictions, mostly in the U.K., and found “no overall impact on police use of force,” on average.

One major study out of Washington, D.C. concluded that law enforcement agencies considering the use of body-worn cameras should not expect “large, department-wide improvements in outcomes.”

The cameras can help to document incidents of racism but they don’t “stop the underlying patterns of racism,” McClelland argued, citing another study on traffic stops out of Oakland.

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“It just invests more money in a system that’s violent and racist,” he said.

Minneapolis police officers involved in the fatal arrest of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, were wearing body cameras, McClelland noted.

Is the death of George Floyd a turning point for systemic racism and law enforcement?
Is the death of George Floyd a turning point for systemic racism and law enforcement?

McClelland added he’s also concerned that the information collected by the cameras could be “weaponized” against marginalized communities that have frequent run-ins with police and violate privacy rights. A study out of Montreal found the cameras didn’t improve people’s trust in police, he said.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association also said it has “serious questions” about the privacy implications of the cameras, citing their potential use in people’s homes or during mental health calls in which individuals might be in distress.

“The reality is that having a camera pointed at individuals also affects their behaviour, their level of comfort with police and potentially the outcome of the interaction for the individual who’s in contact with police,” said Brenda McPhail, director of the association’s privacy, surveillance, and technology project.

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READ MORE: Thousands sign petition calling for mandatory Toronto police usage of body cameras

A better approach than cameras, McClelland argued, would be to financially incentive police officers to not engage in excessive use of force, noting that police officers often get put on paid leave during investigations and are able to get rehired in other police services after getting fired, in some cases.

Cameras ‘not a silver bullet’

Babineau emphasized that body-worn cameras are “not a silver bullet” but said they’re one of a number of tools that police departments should be employing. He called for “over-arching” zero-tolerance policies on racial profiling within police agencies, from the recruitment to pension phases.

But he said he’s optimistic about where the conversation is headed at the moment.

“I think we’ve come to a point now where those in decision making positions are actually listening and that is, to me, a watershed moment,” Babineau said.

— With files from Global News’ Abigail Bimman, Craig Lord, Crystal Oag, Dan Spector, Heide Pearson, Nick Westoll and Ryan Rocca