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