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A member of the Vancouver Police Department wears a chest-mounted camera as he oversees the dismantling of a tent city used by homeless people last month. As the international push to deploy body-worn devices accelerates, some experts aren’t sure if the benefits will outweigh the intrusion of privacy. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press)
A member of the Vancouver Police Department wears a chest-mounted camera as he oversees the dismantling of a tent city used by homeless people last month. As the international push to deploy body-worn devices accelerates, some experts aren’t sure if the benefits will outweigh the intrusion of privacy. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press)

New era of policing: Will the benefits of body-worn cameras outweigh the privacy issues? Add to ...

Later this year, about 800 Calgary police officers will affix tiny video cameras to their vests and fan out on the city’s icy streets, where they will usher in a new and somewhat uncertain era that could be described as point-of-view law enforcement.

These compact GoPro-like devices, known as “body-worn cameras” (BWCs), will record interactions between law-enforcement officials and civilians. Some battery-operated cameras can be attached to an officer’s vest or helmet; others, which look like thick pens, can be connected to the arms of specially designed glasses. The technology is being used in a growing number of British and American cities, including London and New York, which both launched trials this year. Calgary is the first large Canadian police service to make the move, but several other cities, including Toronto, Edmonton, Halifax and Montreal, are looking at testing or adopting the equipment.

According to proponents of the technology, such cameras could have prevented tragedies such as the Aug. 9 death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager shot by a white Ferguson, Mo., officer, because law-enforcement officials would know there would be a visual record of their actions. Where incidents did still occur, a record would be available to provide a clear account of events. With no video of the police encounter with Brown, and sharply differing accounts of the shooting, the investigation into that incident has been proceeding slowly, and accompanied by great public protest.

Advocates for people with addictions and mental illnesses, as well as some civil-liberties organizations, feel body-worn cameras will boost transparency by forcing police officers to be more self-aware about using force against vulnerable individuals. Earlier this year, retired Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci recommended the deployment of body-worn cameras in a far-reaching report on how Toronto’s police force could improve the way it treats emotionally disturbed people.

Video, of course, has become a fixture of law enforcement. With the advent of the ubiquitous phone camera, cops regularly find themselves filmed during the dispatch of their duties, sometimes with enormous public impact, as was the case in Toronto in the summer of 2013 when a bystander filmed a police officer as he fired nine bullets into 18-year-old Sammy Yatim. Some police officials argue that the cameras could level the digital playing field by capturing a close-up recording of what transpires during contentious clashes between cops and civilians. As Supt. Kevan Stuart, who leads the Calgary Police Service’s body-worn camera project and oversaw a trial with 50 officers earlier this year, says. “This will give an unfettered version of what happened.”

Not everyone is sanguine. While Calgary police have pressed ahead with the deployment, some police services question the presumed benefits, the cost and even the need for yet another layer of civilian accountability. Other law-enforcement experts, meanwhile, raise the prospect of mission creep. For example, Calgary will use facial-recognition software with the cameras as a means of identifying suspects. Deakin University lecturer Adam Molnar, a Canadian criminologist who specializes in law-enforcement technology, warns that a body-worn camera deployed in combination with biometric technology becomes “an intelligence-collection device instead of a built-in mechanism to introduce transparency and accountability.”

Indeed, privacy watchdogs are warning that there are thorny legal questions about how and where these cameras can be employed, their downstream uses, and what happens when a bystander is unwittingly captured on a video that may be made public in court or via the media. (A recent Forbes Magazine investigation found that numerous crime-scene videos had been posted to a YouTube channel created by Vievu, a firm that manufactures the devices.) Before adopting the technology, says Tobi Cohen, a spokesperson for the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, “police departments should ask themselves: Are body-worn cameras necessary, are they effective, do the benefits outweigh the intrusion on privacy, and are there less privacy-invasive alternatives?”

Alberta Information and Privacy Commissioner Jill Clayton says she has urged police services in both Calgary and Edmonton to conduct a full impact assessment on the use of the cameras before adopting them, and to then be forthright about whether these systems will eventually include the use of facial-recognition software. “There’s a challenge with these sorts of technologies,” she says, “as they’re not particularly transparent to the public.”

Mark Pugash, the Toronto Police Service’s director of corporate communications, says he has never seen a law-enforcement technology emerge quite so rapidly as body cams. Next year, the TPS will roll out a trial of these devices in two precincts, as well as its traffic division, and among officers assigned to the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS), which polices areas with high rates of gang and drug activity. (Neither the project budget nor the number of officers involved has been made public yet.)

To date, there’s a relatively small amount of empirical evidence to demonstrate that body-worn cameras improve police-civilian interactions. A recent academic study in Rialto, Calif., found a 50-per-cent reduction in the number of use-of-force incidents among officers wearing the cameras. Civilian complaints against police officers also dropped sharply, but the Rialto police department generates only a handful of complaints in a typical year, so it’s difficult to draw conclusions.

Rather, the race to adopt the technology can be traced to highly publicized violent incidents, including one that occurred in Britain in 2011, when police shot and killed Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old north London man, triggering widespread rioting. London police began testing the cameras in response to criticism of the incident and ensuing protests, the BBC reported.

In New York this past summer, Eric Garner died of a heart attack while struggling during an arrest for selling contraband cigarettes. The resulting controversy prompted U.S. judge Shira Scheindlin – who also ruled that New York’s “stop-and-frisk” policy was unconstitutional – to comment that Mr. Garner’s death might have been avoided had the officers been wearing body cameras. While Pat Lynch, president of New York’s police union, dismissed Ms. Scheindlin’s comment as “absurd,” the NYPD initiated a large-scale pilot project in September, focusing on parts of the city which were still seeing high rates of stop-and-frisk activity.

These trial runs are pushing police and privacy officials to look hard at how the technology will be implemented. At the end of an officer’s shift, the video files that have been recorded must be uploaded to a secure server or a cloud-storage system. While the video isn’t kept indefinitely, the cost of storage is hardly trivial, especially in a large force. Still, lawyer Lisa Silver, vice-chair of the Calgary Police Commission, says the budget for the devices and the back-end storage is “very modest” and has been built into the CPS’s existing technology budget.

There may be other resource issues. Toronto lawyer Peter Brauti, who frequently represents officers who are under investigation, says the expense of sifting through countless hours of video footage for court cases will be daunting. “I don’t see how we are even close to being in a situation of managing that,” he says.

In Hamilton, police officials warned about the costs associated with body-worn cameras, citing estimates showing a five-year outlay of $14.8-million, although the city's police services board last week requested that they study the technology over the coming year. “We’ve had very few police complaints,” says Supt. Paul Morrison. “Is there a return on investment in this case? You have to ask that question.”

But criminal lawyer Ari Goldkind, who recently ran for mayor in Toronto and pledged to bring in body-worn cameras, says the cost issue is merely a pretext, “an insult to the intelligence of anyone who cares about good policing.” He points out that the Hamilton police may be reluctant because the service has faced tough questions about the shooting death of Steve Mesic, an emotionally distressed man, last year.

Developing official procedures to govern the use of cameras is also a work-in-progress in many jurisdictions, including Toronto, Mr. Pugash acknowledges. In Calgary, says Supt. Stuart, officers will be required to have their cameras running during encounters with civilians, but will be allowed to turn them off while they’re in their squad cars or engaging with informants who don’t want their identities revealed. “If he or she turns the camera off … they will have to justify and articulate why.”

Criminologist Molnar, however, wonders whether civilians who encounter an officer wearing a camera will enjoy any kind of right to ask that the device be turned off. “Are officers required to give clear notice to the public that they are recording during an encounter?” he asks. “Does the public have the right to tell the officer to disengage the camera? Are cameras going to be used during SWAT-type raids?”

“That’s a tough one to answer,” says Ms. Clayton, the Alberta privacy commissioner, who points out that police enjoy considerable latitude in collecting personal information in the course of their work. They both note that the massive quantities of video data will pose significant privacy and security challenges, as police must regularly deal with freedom-of-information requests by individuals who want to access their personal records.

Mr. Goldkind, who frequently represents defendants who have had rough run-ins with police, hopes that these concerns don’t overshadow the promise of greater transparency. “All we’re doing,’ he says, “is giving an accurate record.”

Still, as the international push to deploy body-worn devices accelerates, Mr. Molnar finds himself pondering the possibility of unintended consequences: “I’m curious, given our current climate of surveillance and a lack of trust between law enforcement and the community, whether these devices might also inhibit the public from calling the police when they need assistance.”

Editor's note: A previous version of this article neglected to mention that the Hamilton Police Services Board has asked police officials to study body-worn cameras for a year.

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