British Columbia has established standards for how police officers should use body cameras, but the province’s police forces say they won’t wear them because of their high costs.
Some observers say cameras could provide evidence on disputed interactions between police and the public. The Independent Investigations Office of B.C., a civilian-led organization that investigates incidents of serious injury or death as a result of police actions, has probed cases where police body cameras may have yielded useful evidence.
In one instance, police struggled to detain a Fort St. John man suspected of theft. In another incident in Langley last month, police investigating an abandoned 911 call ended up in a fight with a man who later died.
Despite the advantages, police across the province oppose the use of the cameras, citing the high costs. But the province’s decision to clear the way for the use of body cameras with detailed rules on how they should be used raises questions about whether the need for transparency should outweigh the police’s objections.
B.C. Solicitor-General Mike Farnworth said there was no specific incident that prompted his ministry’s interest in cameras, but that the province was mindful of the general debate and decided to develop standards in case police decide to adopt the use of body-worn cameras.
“It was felt this was an area of public policy we should do some work on,” Mr. Farnworth said this week.
The B.C. standards, unveiled last summer, lay down such rules as officers turning on cameras as they attend a call or respond to incidents, and informing people they are being recorded. Cameras must be left on until incidents are concluded and video cannot be altered. There are limitations on who can view video.
However, the province has decided not to mandate the use of cameras.
A statement Mr. Farnworth’s ministry said international research has shown “mixed results” on whether cameras provide enhanced accountability or reduce public complaints about police. It also said there are high costs associated with launching body-camera programs.
The head of the Independent Investigations Office of B.C. (IIO) says body-worn cameras could be an asset to its work.
“Obviously, if there is evidence available from body-worn cameras in an interaction that we’re investigating, that would likely be of assistance to us," Ronald MacDonald, chief civilian director for the IIO, said. But he said he is aware of the complexities, such as costs.
Criminologist Rylan Simpson said police body-worn cameras have been a “very hot topic” among U.S. researchers trying to understand their effect on law enforcement and the balance of costs and benefits. “The literature isn’t all that clear, even at this point in time, on what, exactly, the benefits can be,” said the assistant professor in the school of criminology at Simon Fraser University, who completed his PhD at the University of California Irvine.
Dr. Simpson said police departments have to decide whether this technology works given what their community wants. “If so, there’s potential for it to have a positive impact on their community, but there’s also lots of different interventions and programs that, too, can have positive impacts on communities.”
Tom Stamatakis, a Vancouver police officer seconded to lead the Canadian Police Association, noted federal authorities in the United States have been more willing than Canada’s national government to underwrite the cost of such technology.
According to a 2020 program summary from the U.S. Department of Justice, $22.5-million has been allotted each year since 2016 to help state, local and tribal law enforcement across the country cover the costs of body-worn cameras.
A program description says the cameras can help provide evidence in police-citizen interactions, and build and maintain trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.
A January, 2019, report by The Washington Post found that about half of the 18,000 law-enforcement agencies in the United States have some kind of body-camera program, although many departments, especially in smaller jurisdictions, are dropping or delaying programs because it is too expensive to store and manage thousands of hours of footage.
B.C. policing agencies said they are rejecting the use of such cameras.
The Vancouver Police Department blamed costs in rejecting the use of cameras. In a statement, it cited a 2016 camera program launched by the Baltimore Police Department, which it said is similar in size to Vancouver’s. The program cost Baltimore US$11.6-million for equipment, storage and maintenance.
“The technology remains largely cost-prohibitive as it requires significant capital and infrastructure costs to allow for data storage, maintenance and equipment,” Vancouver police spokesperson Sergeant Steve Addison said.
The Victoria Police Department has also ruled out the idea, the force said. Mayor Lisa Helps said the projected $800,000 cost of such a program for policing in the B.C. capital is “through the roof.”
The RCMP, which polices much of British Columbia, said it is sticking to a 2016 policy to “postpone” body-worn cameras until the technology has advanced to meet the force’s needs.
The RCMP has several body-worn camera units that can be deployed from national headquarters for protests or issues of public order. “We are evaluating the effectiveness of the equipment during these deployments,” Corporal Caroline Duval said in a statement.
Mr. Stamatakis said Calgary is the only major Canadian force he knows that is using body-worn cameras. A spokesperson for the Calgary Police Service said the cameras were deployed earlier this year and are worn by front-line officers, who turn them on as they go into interactions with the public.
But with B.C. standards in place, Mr. Stamatakis said police will be ready if police forces eventually decide to use cameras.