Police in the Lower Mainland city of Delta, B.C., plan to begin testing the use of body-worn cameras by officers next month as various other forces in the province consider using the technology.
Body-worn cameras have been seen as an option for improving police accountability by creating a recording of contentious encounters with the public, and the province has enacted standards for their use. However, there have been concerns about whether they really make a difference in police behaviour.
Police in Delta, home to about 100,000 people, plan to test eight cameras in a pilot project that will determine their future role with the force, spokeswoman Cristianne Leykauf said in a statement.
The cameras’ vendor has allowed the Delta Police Department to have the gear at no cost for the pilot project.
In the pilot, officers will film each other during internal training exercises. The cameras will also be used when officers attend protests or demonstrations when there is unlawful activity taking place, such as violence, possession of weapons or blocking of transportation infrastructure, Ms. Leykauf said.
Ms. Leykauf said the pilot project will last as long as it takes to determine how effective the cameras are. She added public input would be sought into any move to make the cameras a regular part of policing in the city.
“At this time, it’s too early to say what the anticipated results of the pilot program will be. However, we wish to assure the public that when pilot project concludes, and if the department believes that body-worn cameras could provide benefits in other situations, public input on expanding uses would be sought,” Ms. Leykauf wrote in the statement.
Ms. Leykauf said the pilot project was also approved by the Delta Police Association, representing all officers who are not senior managers.
Meanwhile, the police chief for the force in the Victoria-area community of Oak Bay said his officers “strongly support” the use of body-worn cameras and the department is looking to bring in the technology.
“We believe that body-worn cameras are a valuable tool and support their usage. We hope to find a way to ultimately implement their use in a manner that is cost-effective,” Chief Ray Bernoties said in a statement. “In the meantime, we are learning from those who have already implemented them.”
Chief Bernoties said buying and wearing cameras is easy, but the “challenging issues” include mass storage of private recordings and public access to information.
For example, he noted that people would have a right to access video footage through Freedom of Information Act requests, requiring more staff to vet videos or blur the faces of people in videos.
The Metro Vancouver Transit Police is also looking at the possible use of cameras. “Body-worn cameras are under long-term consideration,” spokesman Sergeant Clint Hampton said in an e-mail. “There are still hurdles to overcome, one of them being the cost of data storage/management.”
Those concerns proved a hurdle for the Vancouver Police Department, which has researched the use of body-worn cameras as far back as 2012, but raised the data issue as well as the cost of the technology.
Meanwhile, the RCMP has provided a few cameras to police in B.C. for limited use on a case-by-case basis and not for regular patrols.
The executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association said her organization does not support police body-worn cameras.
“They add more funding – rather than shift funding – from police departments, raise significant concerns about privacy and data collection, and have not been proven to be effective in reducing police violence,” Harsha Walia said in a statement.
“In fact, the largest study on police [body-worn cameras] in the U.S. showed almost no change in police behaviour. We need solutions that actually mitigate the scale and scope of policing instead of expensive technological Band-Aid fixes that maintain the status quo of policing in the province.”
Meghan McDermott, interim policy director for the civil liberties association, also described the use of cameras as “an expensive technological Band-Aid-type solution to issues with police accountability, which we see as having systemic roots.”
“A major hesitation that we have with supporting body-worn cameras is that we fear they will become part of normalized police surveillance of the public. The fact that agencies are telling you that they want to use the technology for demonstrations and protests is extremely disturbing, and our provincial standards are defective in that they do not clearly prohibit the use of these cameras for political spying (such as recording protests),” Ms. McDermott said in a statement.
She also noted that most studies make no efforts to figure out whether officers consistently activate their cameras.
In 2019, British Columbia established standards for how police officers should use body cameras. Solicitor-General Mike Farnworth said there was no specific incident that prompted the ministry’s interest but the province was mindful of the general debate and moved to develop standards in case police decided to adopt body-worn cameras.
However, the ministry did not move to make the use of the cameras mandatory, citing mixed results on whether such technology leads to enhanced accountability or a reduction in complaints.
In a statement, the ministry said guiding principles on the use of cameras acknowledge that viewpoints generated by body-worn cameras can vary significantly, privacy protections must be safeguarded, video does not show the whole picture, and they are a “resource-intensive” technology. Still, the cameras can enhance the gathering of evidence for police.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify that cameras will be used by police when there is unlawful activity taking place.
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