Value of video ev­i­dence spurs po­lice push to ex­pand use of body cam­eras

Calgary Herald - - NEWS - BILL KAUF­MANN

Body cam­eras have proven so ef­fec­tive and pop­u­lar among of­fi­cers that city po­lice are con­sid­er­ing ex­pand­ing their use.

About 14 months af­ter all front­line of­fi­cers were equipped with the cam­eras, which record ev­ery pub­lic in­ter­ac­tion, the po­lice ser­vice is gaug­ing the mer­its of pro­vid­ing the de­vices to other uni­formed mem­bers, said Staff Sgt. Travis Baker.

“Ad­di­tional uni­formed mem­bers ac­tu­ally ar­gue they want them, not just for front-line units,” said Baker, who heads up the body­worn cam­era project.

“Sup­port units are ask­ing for them, that we ex­am­ine their vi­a­bil­ity and cost.”

That would in­clude the tac­ti­cal team, which re­sponds to high-risk in­ci­dents, school re­source of­fi­cers, counter staff and oth­ers, says the CPS.

The sus­pi­cion about the de­vices held by some Cal­gary of­fi­cers has eroded since cam­eras first showed up on the CPS radar more than a decade ago, said Deputy Chief Katie Mclel­lan.

“In 2009 there was re­sis­tance, but now of­fi­cers want to tell their sto­ries,” she said.

Af­ter pi­lot projects be­gan in 2012, the CPS be­came the first ma­jor po­lice ser­vice in Canada to fully equip its front-line of­fi­cers with body-worn cam­eras by de­ploy­ing 1,150 of the de­vices in mid-april of last year.

They’re still be­ing eval­u­ated but Baker said their ef­fec­tive­ness is be­com­ing ap­par­ent through their in­ten­sive use, in­clud­ing re­duc­ing vi­o­lent in­ter­ac­tions.

“The be­hav­iour im­me­di­ately changes, I’ve seen that hap­pen mul­ti­ple times,” he said of both civil­ians and of­fi­cers.

Not only do the de­vices en­hance trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity, which builds pub­lic trust in po­lice, Baker said they have also proven a boon to in­ves­ti­ga­tions by re­solv­ing dis­putes and un­cer­tain­ties.

“If a pic­ture’s worth a thou­sand words, a video is an en­tire en­cy­clo­pe­dia,” he said.

An aver­age of 10 to 12 videos a week are sent to the force’s pro­fes­sional stan­dards sec­tion that han­dles com­plaints against po­lice.

But Baker said many of those griev­ances con­cern what he called mi­nor is­sues, such as how an of­fi­cer spoke at a traf­fic stop or a per­ceived slow re­sponse.

Some re­search sug­gests body cam­eras haven’t re­sulted in lower lev­els of vi­o­lence or in­ci­dent de-es­ca­la­tion, but Baker dis­puted those eval­u­a­tions.

He noted a lot of the re­search — which also points to the cam­eras’ ben­e­fits — was con­ducted in the U.S. where cir­cum­stances and dy­nam­ics are dif­fer­ent.

“I like to think we have a much bet­ter re­la­tion­ship with the pub­lic,” said Baker, adding the de­vices are no sil­ver bul­let.

“It’s an­other tool in the tool box.”

But ex­pand­ing the use of the cam­eras runs up against fund­ing lim­i­ta­tions — the de­vices cost $2,700 apiece and $1,600 to op­er­ate an­nu­ally.

Po­lice also say their avail­abil­ity is be­ing stretched in a world dra­mat­i­cally fo­cused on po­lice ac­count­abil­ity in the wake of the death of Ge­orge Floyd in Min­neapo­lis po­lice cus­tody, said John Orr, pres­i­dent of the Cal­gary Po­lice As­so­ci­a­tion.

“There may be de­lays in procur­ing them,” said Orr.

But he said his union’s mem­bers view the cam­eras favourably as a way for po­lice to de­fend them­selves.

“They serve a very im­por­tant pur­pose and our mem­bers have wel­comed them ... when there are un­founded com­plaints, our of­fi­cers feel pro­tected,” said Orr.

Body-worn cam­eras, he said, have also proven ideal train­ing tools for re­cruits by shar­ing real-life ex­pe­ri­ences.

One draw­back, he said, is the con­sid­er­able amount of time de­voted to re­view­ing the reams of footage pro­duced.

They’ve had a ben­e­fi­cial ef­fect in the jus­tice sys­tem by pro­vid­ing both tes­ti­mony ev­i­dence in court and in re­solv­ing crim­i­nal cases be­hind the scenes, said Ian Sav­age, pres­i­dent of the Crim­i­nal De­fence Lawyers’ As­so­ci­a­tion.

“They’ve had a pos­i­tive ef­fect from both sides of the cam­era,” said Sav­age.

“It’s also as­sisted Crown and de­fence coun­sel in re­solv­ing files where ob­vi­ous er­rors by po­lice or in ob­vi­ous in­frac­tions com­mit­ted by the ac­cused.”

The qual­ity of the CPS video, he said, is far su­pe­rior to footage pro­duced by RCMP dash­board cam­eras.

But he said there is a con­cern a mi­nor­ity of of­fi­cers have be­come “click-happy” in switch­ing the de­vices on and off while ap­proach­ing or dur­ing in­ci­dents “that could leave the viewer with the im­pres­sion the of­fi­cer is try­ing to edit the event to the detri­ment of the sus­pect.”

An­other ques­tion yet to be fully ad­dressed is the pub­lic re­lease of body cam video, some­thing the CPS says is con­strained by is­sues of pri­vacy that could af­fect civil­ians in the footage.

All video taken of non-crim­i­nal in­ter­ac­tions is deleted af­ter 13 months, said Baker, adding ac­cess to it is se­verely lim­ited even within the CPS.

“I’ve turned down some pretty se­nior of­fi­cers be­cause (the footage) was out­side the scope of in­ves­ti­ga­tion,” he said.

When asked about the re­lease of po­lice video in a case of al­leged po­lice bru­tal­ity, CPS Chief Mark Neufeld said un­cer­tainty re­mains about that prac­tise.

“We’re go­ing to have to eval­u­ate that process ... I don’t know if we have a pol­icy of re­leas­ing those pub­licly,” said Neufeld.

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