‘Iron-clad’ policy must accompany police-worn body cameras in Vancouver, says expert

Click to play video: 'VPD one step closer to wearing body cameras'
VPD one step closer to wearing body cameras
WATCH: By 2025, Vancouver police officers on the frontlines will be wearing body cams. City council voted in favour of the motion Wednesday night, based on a big campaign promise from Mayor Ken Sim. But as Catherine Urquhart reports, some are saying there are still many unanswered questions. – Dec 8, 2022

An expert on the impacts and outcomes of police body-worn cameras is warning that if a program equipping Vancouver police with them proceeds, “iron-clad” regulation must accompany it.

Christopher Schneider, a sociology professor at Manitoba’s Brandon University, has written multiple peer-reviewed papers on the topic, and cautioned that body-worn cameras, which primarily capture the public rather than the officer, do not present the full context of an interaction with police.

“With body-worn cameras, largely, transparency and accountability are buzzwords that have been used by politicians and police because there’s not a lot of agreement right now on what that means,” Schneider explained. “Visibility is a key characteristic of transparency.”

The devices are far from a “perfect” tool for improving transparency and accountability, he added, noting that they can fall off in a pursuit, be turned off by officers, and do not have the battery or storage capacity to operate for the full length of an officer’s shift.

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Read more: Vancouver councillors vote to move ahead on body-worn cameras for police

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Vancouver City Council approved the use of cameras for Vancouver police in principle on Wednesday night, articulating an end goal of equipping every frontline, on-duty officer by 2025. Staff have been ordered to report back to council in 2024 with policy recommendations and a cost estimate.

It was a campaign promise of Mayor Ken Sim’s ABC party and passed with all seven ABC councillors in favour. OneCity’s Christine Boyle and the Green Party’s Adriane Carr and Pete Fry opposed, arguing that council should not be vouching for a program without all the facts in hand.

“There’s serious concerns, there’s budget concerns and there’s operational concerns, and there’s pricing concerns,” Fry said Wednesday night. “Those all need to be addressed.

“I think this is not really following best practice. I’m very uncomfortable with this kind of approach.”

Click to play video: 'Vancouver council appears poised to green light police body cameras'
Vancouver council appears poised to green light police body cameras

Fry attempted to have council’s support for the cameras deferred until after the completion of a mandatory privacy impact assessment and the approval of the Vancouver Police Department’s (VPD) request for $200,000 to conduct a pilot program.

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Opposing councillors questioned the usefulness of a pilot if the plan is to equip the force with cameras either way. Boyle attempted to amend the motion’s to have the pilot “inform” council’s decision.

Delta police are in the midst of conducting their own pilot with body-worn cameras. Police in Toronto and Calgary have already moved to use the controversial devices, and the RCMP is preparing to roll out 12,500 cameras across 700 detachments, starting with a field test of 300 units in three divisions.

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ABC Coun. Peter Meiszner said the party was elected with a majority on a platform that promised cameras for police, and that provincial policing standards address many of the public’s concerns about privacy, transparency, data storage, and surveillance.

“These body-worn cameras, which are used in many other jurisdictions, will help increase transparency in policing, will ensure the people are treated fairly and respectfully, will ensure the people are not discriminated against or profiled, because there will be video evidence,” argued Coun. Peter Meiszner.

“We can’t afford to wait any longer, we can’t afford to dither about this a few more years.”

Click to play video: 'Vancouver police moving closer to body cameras'
Vancouver police moving closer to body cameras

Schneider, however, said empirical research on the effectiveness of body-worn cameras is “mixed.” Deployment of the gear has been correlated with increased use of force, decreased use of force, and no statistically significant difference in use of force, depending on the circumstance, he told Global News.

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Given that body-worn cameras seem likely to implemented in many jurisdictions either way, he advised decision-makers to develop strict guidelines on who can access the footage, how it will be stored, and what consequences officers will face for turning their cameras off when they shouldn’t.

“What sort of independent oversight is there going to be?” he asked. “Is there going to be unfettered access to body-worn camera materials by third-party groups, independent oversights groups, that will be able to be on the lookout for police misconduct or the illegitimate use of police violence?”

Schneider advised the VPD to host a series of town halls with stakeholders, the public and impacted communities, whose input should inform the regulations that go hand-in-hand with the cameras.

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Vancouver police spokesperson Sgt. Steve Addison said the force welcomes public input and will look to other jurisdictions who have used cameras to guide its upcoming, but undated, pilot program.

He said the VPD is open to body-worn cameras, but noted many unanswered policy questions remain.

“The value we see it in it is, potentially, it could reduce the number of frivolous or vexatious complaints against officers, speed up the amount of time that it takes various oversight agencies to conduct investigations — also in collecting evidence for criminal investigations,” he said Thursday.

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“But we also understand there are many people who are and will be uncomfortable with the idea of being filmed, of being recorded and we need to ensure people’s privacy is protected.”

Click to play video: 'Why are Quebec’s top two police forces still not equipped with body cameras?'
Why are Quebec’s top two police forces still not equipped with body cameras?

According to Kit Rothschild, co-executive director of the PACE Society, those most at risk from body-worn cameras include the unhoused, drug users, sex workers, Black and Indigenous Peoples, and members of other racialized and overpoliced communities.

“The only things (body-worn cameras) are is costly, an invasion of privacy and they pose a serious risk of data breaches,” Rothschild said at Wednesday’s committee meeting.

“The handling, security an storage of this data would actually require more accountability from VPD than they are currently willing to provide.”

Rothschild questioned how the motion is line with Vancouver’s commitment to reconciliation, what kind of consultation with impacted communities took place, and expressed grave concern with surveillance applications.

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According to provincial government standards, a privacy impact assessment must be completed and approved prior to the deployment of body-worn cameras. The precise circumstances under which they may be used and information on the policy, must also be made public.

Footage must be stored with restricted access and not altered at any time, and may only be retained for one year from the date it was recorded, then it must be deleted, the standards state.

ABC Coun. Lenny Zhou, who authored the motion to support the cameras, has repeatedly pointed to a 2015 legislative special committee’s report on the Independent Investigations Office (IIO), which recommended the province “aggressively pursue” police use of the devices. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth has also endorsed the idea, he said Wednesday night.

An annual report from the IIO in 2015 and 2016 that reviewed 71 of the watchdog’s investigations also determined that body-worn cameras might have help resolve 93 per cent investigations sooner, possibly leading to cost saves and reduce stress for complainants and officers.

-With files from Catherine Urquhart

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