You’re more likely to behave if you know you’re being watched. This week, Toronto police announced a program to test what is known as body-worn video – cameras worn on officers’ lapels, which record police interactions with the public. Similarly to the cameras mounted on the dashboards of patrol cars and inside police stations, the idea is to protect both police and public: the police against false accusations; the public against police abuse.
Several other Canadian cities are already well ahead in terms of testing the technology. In Calgary, for example, a small group of officers began wearing the cameras in 2012, and the devices are now being extended to the rest of the force. Other cities, such as Montreal, are looking into starting their own pilot programs.
Toronto’s decision comes after two reports suggested that the cameras could help improve transparency and accountability. If a police officer assaults a member of the public, for example, and there are no other witnesses present, the wrong-doing may never come to light, or the allegation may not be believed. Absent video, the only evidence will be the testimony of the accuser and accused, and the latter is a police officer.
What little evidence we have of the impact of police body-worn video suggests that its presence can moderate everyone’s behaviour – both police and the citizens they interact with. But its main purpose is to help the public better oversee the police, not the reverse. It must be used in a way that guarantees rights and respects privacy.
People being filmed should immediately be informed, similarly to how someone placed under arrest is read their rights. People should also be able to ask that cameras be turned off in certain situations: If you invite police into your home to report a burglary, they don’t have to videotape their walk into your living room. At the same time, there must also be rules in place so that police do not selectively turn the video cameras on and off at opportune moments. For example, the cameras in Toronto police patrol cars go on automatically whenever the emergency lights and siren are activated.
Video should also not be released except in the most limited circumstances – if it’s material to a court case or a complaint against police. All other video, most of which will involve innocent interactions with members of the public, should remain private, and be destroyed in a timely manner. Body-worn cameras should be a tool to uphold the law, not to infringe on privacy.