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Monday, September 06, 2010

Should Toronto police use body cameras?

September 6, 2010
Katherine Leyton, Open File Community Powered News

Although there are no immediate plans for Toronto police to begin using body cameras, the force appears to be moving in that direction.

“You have to look ahead and look at trends,” says Mark Pugash, director of the Toronto Police Service public information unit. “Law enforcement in both North America and Europe is going in that direction so it would be a mistake to rule [the use of body cameras] out.”

It's a sensitive issue in the wake of Toronto's G20 summit, which sparked debate about police powers earlier this summer.

The technology — small digital video cameras that can be clipped to an officer’s uniform or ear — is already being used by some American and British police forces and has recently been tested by police in Victoria, B.C. Edmonton police are expected to conduct a year-long trial of body-mounted cameras in 2012.

Pugash cites accountability as well as public and officer safety as the main reasons behind the force’s interest in the technology.

“One of the things that research has shown is that with in-car cameras the majority of complaints that are made against police are found with the camera evidence to be unfounded," Pugash says. "And so one of the things the camera does is to protect officers against unreasonable allegations. If the police officer misbehaves, then the evidence is there and that officer is held accountable. It protects officers. It protects the public. It also provides the best possible evidence for court proceedings.”

Civil rights advocates are skeptical the technology would make officers more accountable.

“One concern is whether it’s an officer’s discretion to decide when those cameras are on and when they’re off,” says Cara Zwibel, director of the anti-discrimination program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. “Imagine a number of situations where an officer may just record a reaction to something as opposed to what prompted that reaction.”

The cameras also raise concerns about privacy. “One of the things we don’t know is how long the police plan on keeping what’s recorded, what type of uses they might put their recordings to and whether those recordings will be disclosed to the individuals who get recorded, because presumably if you were charged with a criminal offence [the video] would be relevant evidence,” Zwibel says.

Cases such as the 2007 death of Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver International Airport, where RCMP tried to seize a citizen's video that showed the man being hit with five Taser blasts, provide a legitimate basis for concern over who would control such recordings.

Should they decide to adopt body cameras, Pugash says, the Toronto police would work closely with Ontario's information and privacy commissioner, as well as consult with the public, to address any issues of concern.

“What we’ve seen so far is that the public, pretty much throughout the city, would like security cameras faster than we’re able to put them in," he says. "We’ve seen excellent examples of where [these technologies] work but you have to have very strict rules and regulations about how you use them.”

Zwibel is not as confident about the effectiveness of cameras; she points out that although more than 70 closed-circuit television cameras were in operation in downtown Toronto during the G20, the police have appealed to the public to send them cellphone videos of any criminal activity they may have seen.

“I think there’s a point at which we have to question whether just because we can do something, we should,” she says. “Just because we have the technology to record, to have these closed-circuit television cameras downtown, to have body cameras and microphones, is that something we should do and does every interaction with the police need to be recorded with a video camera? Does this really do anything to help improve our public safety?

"I guess the question I’d want to pose to the police is whether they would have any problem with a member of the public whipping out their cellphone camera when they’re being questioned by the police and recording the interaction. My suspicion is that in many cases they would be quite concerned about that and they would say, ‘Turn your camera off.’ ”

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