Toronto Police Launch Body-Worn Camera Pilot Project
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Toronto Police Launch Body-Worn Camera Pilot Project

As Toronto police launch their body-camera pilot project this week, the initiative comes with its own set of concerns.

Courtesy of the Toronto Police Service.

After discussions with community groups and months of reports, this week the Toronto Police Service launches a nearly yearlong pilot project that equips 100 police officers with body-worn cameras.

Body-worn cameras, otherwise known as lapel cameras, are an increasingly popular tool in Canadian and U.S. cities, as police departments respond to worries about accountability and public trust. This is in part due to high-profile shootings that have raised concerns about police conduct. But body-worn cameras come with their own set of problems—namely, whether the implementation will be successful and if accountability can be balanced with personal privacy.

The cameras will be used in two scenarios, according to Superintendent Tom Russell: whenever officers receive a call for service, and when they are investigating individuals. He added that officers will notify the public when activating their cameras.

“We had to do a lot of homework to get this right. We want to do it right for the community and the officers that are using this,” Russell said at a press conference Friday.

“This is our first go at this and we need to be able to study and know what the impact is for Toronto Police Services.”

With a budget of $500,000, the project will use three different different kinds of cameras, which will be mounted on police uniform lapels. The cameras range in price from $600 to $1,000.

Body-worn cameras were one of the 84 recommendations made by an independent review on how the force deals with people in crisis. Led by former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci, the report was released in July 2014.

“Multiple field studies have demonstrated that complaints against police decrease when officers are equipped with cameras,” Iacobucci wrote.

“This is in part because police have an additional incentive to treat people respectfully, and also because individuals are deterred from bringing false allegations against police officers when video evidence exists of the interaction.”

The report was commissioned in part because of the police-shooting death of Sammy Yatim the year before. Constable James Forcillo, the officer who shot Yatim in an emptied streetcar, was later charged with second-degree murder.

However, Iacobucci and civil-liberties groups have raised privacy concerns about the new police tool.

In February, federal and provincial privacy commissioners came out with a list of guidelines [PDF] for the use of body-worn cameras. Issues include notifying the public of when they are being recorded, whether or not officers can turn the cameras on and off, and how police can avoid filming bystanders.

Photo courtesy of Toronto Police Service.

“These policies and procedures should be made available to the public to promote transparency and accountability,” reads the report. “Demonstrating to the public that policies and procedures exist and officers are accountable for following them is essential to ensuring that individuals’ privacy rights are adequately protected.”

Toronto is not the first Canadian city to use body-worn cameras. Vancouver, Montreal, Calgary, and Edmonton have all launched pilot projects recently. Calgary and Edmonton are currently evaluating the results of the pilot, and the reports will be released in the coming months. After a similar pilot project was conducted in Calgary three years ago, some footage captured by body-worn cameras was used in court cases as evidence.

South of the border, President Barack Obama announced in December that the U.S. government would provide funding for 50,000 body-worn cameras to be used across the country in an effort to improve community policing after several recent police shootings resulted in the deaths of unarmed black men.

A landmark study published by Cambridge University in November 2014 tested body-worn cameras on police officers in Rialto, California. While the findings showed that use of force by the officers had dropped by 59 per cent and complaints against officers dropped by 87 per cent, one of the authors of the study, Barak Ariel, expressed concerns with the use of body-worn camera footage as evidence.

“Historically, courtroom testimonies of response officers have carried tremendous weight,” said Ariel. “But prevalence of video might lead to reluctance to prosecute when there is no evidence from body-worn cameras to corroborate the testimony of an officer, or even a victim.”

Ariel and the other authors involved in the study urge police forces do more research to support their findings before adapting to widespread use of body-worn cameras.

The Toronto Police Services Board will evaluate the results of the pilot project and decide whether or not to continue using body-worn cameras by June 2016.