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Monday, May 16, 2011

Mounties using their heads to video crime, deal with suspects

May 16, 2011
By Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA — The RCMP like to say they always get their man, and soon they might have video of him, too.

The national police force is studying the use of head-mounted video cameras to record confrontations with suspects.

The move follows RCMP field trials in Kelowna, B.C., and Moncton, N.B., last year in which the force tested — and later rejected — other video devices.

Included in the trials were the Taser Cam, an accessory for newer-model stun guns made by Taser International, supplier to the RCMP, and the Vidmic, an audio-video recorder that attaches to an officer's belt radio.

During the pilot, 132 Vidmic video clips were recorded and the Taser Cam was used twice, say RCMP documents obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act. In addition, several still photos were taken with the Vidmic.

The RCMP records show the devices didn't quite meet the force's needs.

Members "expressed concerns" with the Taser Cam because it began recording only when the stun gun's safety switch was set to the armed position, says an August 2010 report on the field trials.

It meant that, in one Kelowna episode, "a significant amount of communication and negotiation" with a man who tried to harm himself and threatened police was not captured on video, notes the report.

In that case, the Taser was not fired.

"Had the situation ended differently, with the subject not complying, the efforts made by the members to de-escalate the situation would not have been recorded," the report says.

Because the Vidmic was mounted on the member's vest or jacket, it was not always pointed in the direction the member was looking, says the report.

Officers also had technical concerns with the Vidmic, including the fact it beeped every few seconds when the battery was low.

"It was noted this could have officer safety implications if the members were conducting a silent approach on foot to an incident."

As a result, late in the trial, the force began looking at a head-worn camera that slips over the ear and connects to a portable mini-computer on the belt.

Ten Axon devices, made by Arizona-based Taser International, were tested only in off-duty settings, such as training, because the video recordings were downloaded directly to a site in the United States, posing potential privacy concerns.

"The members immediately reported that the Axon camera resolved the issues and limitations they had noted with the Vidmic," say the RCMP notes.

Though officers found the mini-computer "quite bulky," the Axon "warranted a more in-depth review."

Based on feedback from officers, the RCMP began new research last month focusing on the head-mounted cameras, said Sgt. Pat Flood, an RCMP spokeswoman.

No field trial is yet underway, she said. But the internal RCMP memos say funding has been set aside in anticipation of the next trial, which might include other police forces.

"If a further pilot is approved, the recordings will be housed in Canada," say the notes. "There is also opportunity to bring other law enforcement agencies in on the expanded pilot project as the server can house their data separately."

At least two other Canadian police forces have tested body-worn video devices. A report on the Victoria police department's 2009 trial found the technology provided "the best evidence possible" and that the video could be used in court. It also said officers' awareness of their surroundings increased, while public hostility and aggressiveness decreased.

Police tout video as a means of documenting their side of the story when conflicting accounts of an altercation arise. However, civil libertarians have warned that police use of video raises important questions about the citizens' rights.

The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association has argued that it's no coincidence a number of videos police misconduct have come from the public, not police.

A vivid example is the case of Robert Dziekanski — who died in 2007 after being hit with an RCMP Taser at the Vancouver airport — an episode recorded by a fellow traveller carrying a video camera.

The RCMP report recommends that future study of video look at data storage and retention, cost, training and recertification, and privacy-related concerns.

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