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In this Oct. 5, 2020, file photo, a New York Police Department's counterterrorism officer stands outside St. Patrick's Cathedral wearing a body camera in New York.Mark Lennihan/The Associated Press

In the year since George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer and his death sparked global protests and calls to defund the police, law-enforcement officials in Ontario have announced more than $70-million in contracts for body-worn cameras and related software.

The deals follow years of pilot projects in Canada to test the technology, which is often touted as a tool to prevent the overpolicing of racialized communities, curb excessive use of force and heighten overall transparency. “Body-worn video creates greater accountability,” Public Safety Minister Bill Blair told Parliament last year amid the outrage over Mr. Floyd’s death. He spoke of police across Canada taking a “deep and serious look” at systemic racism.

Critics say the technology is expensive and that evidence is lacking on whether it pays the promised dividends. Deals for body-worn cameras “inflate spending on police services and police budgets,” Brandon University sociologist Chris Schneider says. “I think what the cameras have done is distract attention away from issues like the ‘defund’ movement.”

After Mr. Floyd’s death last year, protesters across the continent called on politicians to reduce police funding and redirect the money to organizations that can intervene in crises without using violence. However, police forces have since asked for millions of dollars to acquire body-worn cameras.

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Last summer, the Toronto Police Service announced it is budgeting $34-million over five years for more than 2,000 body-worn cameras and related digital evidence-management software to process the video. A few months later, neighbouring Peel Regional Police announced a similar package at an estimated cost of $10-million. In March, Thunder Bay Police announced a $2.5-million deal for body cameras, Tasers and “virtual-reality-based empathy training.”

All three forces are getting the equipment from Arizona-based Axon Enterprises Inc., formerly Taser International, the dominant supplier to the U.S. police market.

During the Thunder Bay announcement, Chief Sylvie Hauth said the cameras should help address concerns expressed in a 2019 watchdog’s report that called out the city’s police force for a history of systemic racism. “The report ‘Broken Trust’ really highlighted the fact that we had to build relationships and work on our accountability and transparency,” she said in a video.

Several other municipal police forces in Canada say they are evaluating camera technology, in some cases using the equipment in test runs that can last years. In Hamilton, the police board calls body cameras an “inevitability,” but one they cannot afford yet. There is no “clear consensus on whether or not body worn cameras offer the solution for police and public relations that is expected,” the city’s acting chief, Frank Bergen, wrote last month in a memo.

While police forces debate the technology, bystanders with camera phones have been making a difference in how police are perceived. “User-generated viral videos have done more for police transparency and accountability than body-worn camera footage has – most notably, we look to George Floyd’s murder,” Prof. Schneider said.

In May, 2020, bystanders recorded the 46-year-old Black man pleading for his life as a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck. This week, the now former office, Derek Chauvin, was convicted of murder and manslaughter. Police body-worn camera footage was used as evidence at the trial.

Body-worn cameras gained traction in the United States years ago, and several states responded to Mr. Floyd’s death by passing laws requiring more forces to acquire them. Although U.S. police in the past often said they could not immediately release such footage, this month police bodycam videos of fatal shootings – a 13-year-old in Chicago; a 16-year-old in Columbus, Ohio; and a 20-year-old in a Minneapolis suburb – were made public within days of the tragedies.

Canada has no laws mandating body-worn cameras. Police forces that do have them must create their own policies on when video can be released. In cases of videotaped deaths and injuries, the decision will lie with provincial watchdog bodies such as Ontario’s Special Investigative Unit – which currently take months to investigate before releasing any findings.

“In cases where the SIU is not involved or their involvement has ceased, the service may release to the public,” the Toronto Police Service policy on body cameras says. But it adds that a police chief would have to rule there is a “compelling public interest.”

Footage from body-worn cameras may well give the public better insight into violent police interactions. But the devices will also be evidence-gathering tools – so acquisitions announced in the name of accountability will also bolster charges against people.

In January, Ontario Solicitor-General Sylvia Jones announced the government will spend $31-million on Axon’s version of digital evidence-management software, a central storage system that allows police and prosecutors to share large files of data, including various forms of video.

Currently, Ontario’s police and prosecutors have to exchange evidence on memory sticks. As more files are stored, this repository can be used to ease disclosure to defence lawyers, and allow investigative collaborations among police in different cities.

For that to happen, most municipal police forces would need to run similar software. So Queen’s Park is offering an inducement: to pay nearly half of the licensing cost for a year. “Police services interested in participating in the province’s digital-evidence management program will have first-year licensing fees for up to 45 per cent of sworn officers paid for by the province,” Solicitor-General spokesman Brent Ross said.

Police chiefs in Ontario say they have long wanted such a platform because they can’t really commit to body-worn cameras without one. “We didn’t just start talking about body cameras in the last year,” says Jeff McGuire, executive director of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police. “Discussion has been going on for four or five years.” Data storage has always been the stumbling block, he said, adding: “We didn’t want to end up with 30 or 40 different systems across the province.”

Some police forces are seizing upon the Solicitor-General’s bargain as an opportunity to get other kinds of Axon policing products. “This announcement clearly renders Axon the vendor of choice for supplying both the body-worn cameras and the digital evidence management program,” the chief and deputy chief of the police force in Belleville, Ont., wrote in a March memo to their civilian board. Now, 70 body-worn cameras are coming to the city of 50,000 people for year-long pilot project.

British Columbia is negotiating to buy its own digital evidence-management system. Meantime, the Mounties are looking for vendors who can supply software and cameras for their 20,000 officers.

Last year, the Liberal government announced it would budget up to $50-million a year for an RCMP-wide rollout. The technology will be launched with “a focus on strengthening trust and relationships with racialized and Indigenous communities,” Department of Finance officials wrote in last fall’s economic statement.

No vendors have yet been chosen, and the Mounties’ newly formed police union is pushing back on some fronts. The National Police Federation said in a January statement the technology “should not be treated as a panacea to ongoing policing challenges and cannot be a replacement for proven measures like adequate resourcing of police and social services.”

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