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Police ride bikes at a peaceful anti-racism march in Toronto on June 5, 2020. Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders – who announced Monday he will be retiring at the end of July – has pledged that a first round of officers will be outfitted with cameras in the coming months.

Melissa Tait

The RCMP plans to equip its officers with body cameras, saying the technology will increase transparency and public trust by providing a first-person view of what police officers encounter in often tense situations.

The decision, which an RCMP spokesman confirmed Monday night, came on the same day that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he supports Canadian police forces outfitting officers with body cameras and would discuss doing so with premiers later this week.

“I will certainly be talking with the provinces and premiers about the need to move forward on measures like body cameras,” he said.​

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RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki is committed to taking whatever steps are required to enhance trust between the force and the communities it serves, spokesman Dan Brien said about the roll-out, noting the force will work closely with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner to ensure any concerns are addressed.

​​The Toronto Police Service has also announced plans to expedite its roll-out of body cameras. Since last year, all front-line Calgary Police Service officers have been wearing them and several other police services across Canada – including Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton and Thunder Bay – have conducted pilot projects.

And although Mr. Brien says the RCMP “has reviewed previous research and studies to draw best practices,” in fact many police trials and major studies so far have shown that body cameras are not a perfect solution. They are expensive, can pose privacy concerns and may have little or no impact on police behaviour or public trust.

One of the largest studies on the devices across North America was in Washington where a random selection of 2,224 police officers was equipped with body cameras for seven months. In their final report last year, researchers concluded body cameras “have very small and statistically insignificant effects on police use of force and civilian complaints, as well as other policing activities and judicial outcomes.”

In Toronto, Chief Mark Saunders – who announced Monday he will be retiring at the end of July – has pledged that a first round of officers will be outfitted with cameras in the coming months. At a press conference last week, he was unable to provide an estimate of how much the roll-out will cost. His service – which is the largest metropolitan force in Canada – has a $1.076-billion budget this year.

One of the most complicated issues surrounding body cameras is privacy. They cannot be rolling continuously and, as a result, the decision of when to turn the camera on is often left up to the officer.

Video evidence is seen as being objective, “yet what’s captured is literally controlled by the way an officer orients his or her body, and depends on policy decisions about whether or not he or she has discretion about when to turn it on,” said Brenda McPhail, director of the Privacy, Technology and Surveillance project for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

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In a 2016 randomized controlled trial of body cameras in the U.S., researchers found a decrease in use-of-force incidents when officers activated their cameras every time they arrived on scene, but recorded an increase when officers were able to choose when to activate them.

Mark Saunders stepping down as Toronto Police Chief as service faces calls for transformation

Trudeau says body cameras could be ‘significant step’ for police forces

Last week in Louisville, Ky., it came to light that two officers who were involved in the fatal shooting of David McAtee, a Black man, had not activated their body cameras. The officers were put on administrative leave and their police chief was fired.

Transparency is also an issue with body cameras. Erick Laming, a University of Toronto doctoral candidate studying police use of force and oversight, says the public has unrealistic expectations of how accessible such footage would be.

Even if a body camera is properly activated and clearly captures an interaction between police and the public, that footage would likely be restricted during any investigation by oversight bodies – which could take six months to a year. A freedom-of-information request would likely be needed to access the video and even then, it could be severely redacted, he said.

Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner Brian Beamish said in an e-mail that while his office supports the use of body cameras “to enhance community safety, police accountability and public confidence in policing,” he was concerned about the potential for personal information to be captured.

“There need to be clear and transparent rules on when the cameras will be used to record images and when they should be turned off,” he said. "These rules must be followed rigorously – officers must be consistent and appropriate in their use of the cameras.”

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The appeal for police is the possibility that camera footage could resolve cases faster without going to trial, which would mean less paperwork, according to a British study.

Joe Couto, a spokesperson for the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, said that while there has traditionally been resistance in policing to the idea of body-worn cameras, officers are starting to come around to the idea: “A lot of it is that turning of the police culture around, from the suspicion to … ‘Let’s show the community what we’re doing. Here you go, here’s what happened from different angles, even different officers.’ And if you did nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear.”

Sandy Hudson, one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter Toronto, says more objective video, such as that shot by bystanders, is much more valuable, but even those captures have done little to deter police brutality.

For the last two weeks following the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a Minneapolis police officer, citizens and journalists have offered up a reel of documented police violence against unarmed protesters: tear gassing, beatings, shooting rubber bullets – many times directly at the reporters training cameras on them.

While recent bystander video of Mr. Floyd’s death prompted protests and charges against police officer Derek Chauvin and fellow officers who were on scene, violent interactions between civilians and police captured on video rarely deliver the justice the public seeks.

"We’re not asking for them to show us them killing us; we’re asking for them to stop,” said Ms. Hudson, who is a proponent of the abolition of police services. “We’ve done that and they’ve not stopped killing us and so we’re moving toward asking for removing them as service providers.”

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