Toronto Police Services, the biggest municipal force in the country, announced this week that it is thinking about equipping its front-line officers with a new breed of law-enforcement video camera: the on-body recording system. The miniature cameras, mounted on the shoulder or on eyeglasses, are becoming more and more prevalent as a way of reducing police brutality and providing evidence in a police shooting.
Scott Greenwood, a constitutional lawyer in Cincinnati and former board member of the American Civil Liberties Union, is a leading authority on the deployment of body cams. He and a former Cincinnati police chief developed model protocols on their use and advise police forces around the world.
What are the pros of putting body cams on police?
They’re almost limitless. The most important reason is it provides for the first time an unimpeachable view of what the officer actually sees. We’ve never really come close to having the ability to truly judge what an officer has done except through an officer’s narrative and recollection, and eyewitness accounts. Putting a recording system on front-line officers would make a very significant difference.
We know from the studies that have been done that on-body recording systems reduce complaints. We know they reduce uses of force. Everybody is better behaved when there’s video involved.
What are the major cons?
In terms of privacy protection, the diciest area is when an officer is inside somebody’s residence. That is something that is specifically protected in the U.S. by our 4th Amendment and in Canada by your Charter. While an officer may have an exception to somebody’s overall constitutional rights to enter a residence because of a warrant, that doesn’t mean that the person automatically waives their privacy rights.
The police can come in and record, but the video that’s generated should never be released to members of the public or the press without the consent of the person whose home has been breached.
On-body recording systems could chill expressive activity if they are simply used as surveillance tools, at events such as parades, demonstrations, etc., solely to gather information on the participants, or in individual interactions where an officer flips it on simply to deter free speech.
Just like any other piece of police equipment, the use of an on-body recording system has to be governed by very strong policies. If the cameras are only used to exonerate officers or to implicate subjects, then the technology will not be accepted.
In the ideal deployment, a police department needs to have an on-body recording system on each front-line officer, with policies that mandate recording each interaction with any subject.
That means the officer does not have the authority to switch the device on and off according to his or her own wishes.
Where does the video go after it’s recorded?
The sophisticated, gold-standard platforms automatically take the video off the officer’s system and put it into either a locally based storage system or a cloud-based system, where it is then managed by people in the chain of command. That’s how it really ought to be considered because, after all, what’s on an officer’s body cam is evidence, and it needs to be protected.
Does a citizen involved in a recording have an automatic right to see what has been recorded?
The best practice is that any citizen who is recorded by a police officer should have a right to obtain a video and audio of that interaction upon request.
Do police need to state up front that they are recording an interaction when they approach someone?
An officer should be required to tell someone that they’re being recorded. And that’s fine, because what we know currently in policing is that in large urban environments there’s already recording that’s happening – it’s just not on the officer. During the average interaction between a police officer and a subject in an urban area in the United States, there’s something like seven external sources of video already. Most of them are on cellphone or on security video on buildings – that sort of thing.
Is this the future?
Within 10 years it will be unthinkable not to do this.
You’ve got an incident in Toronto: the [Sammy] Yatim case. There are apparently 12 different sources of video on that, but they’re all external. They’re cellphone video or fixed-building video. We don’t know what happened inside the streetcar. That’s a perfect example of where the use of an on-body recording system, particularly at eye-level, either mounted on the glasses or the epaulettes or the collar, would show us what actually happened.
The interview has been edited and condensed.