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opinion

Christopher J. Schneider is professor of sociology at Brandon University and author of Policing and Social Media: Social Control in an Era of New Media. Erick Laming is an assistant professor in criminology and sociology at Trent University. His main research examines police use of force and accountability.

This month, the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) began its six-month pilot project of having its officers use body-worn cameras (BWCs). It is a fairly pointless pilot, however, since the VPD and the Vancouver Police Board have already committed to plans to equip all front-line officers with BWCs by 2025.

The VPD’s inevitable adoption of body-camera technology is part of a broader trend where other police services have either already deployed BWCs or have announced plans to do so. For its part, the VPD says its pilot program’s guidelines are “consistent with other Canadian police agencies,” but offers no specifics about what that means.

Typically, these police departments say that they are deploying BWCs primarily to improve transparency and accountability: “We believe the cameras will strengthen public safety, and enhance transparency, trust, and accountability in interactions between the police and the public,” the VPD said, to justify its program.

It should go without saying that belief does not, and should never, constitute evidence or fact. But this is happening all too often in conversations about body-worn cameras for police.

Paying police more just to wear body cameras is untenable

Despite the common assertion that body cameras will somehow improve accountability and transparency measures for police and the public, practically no evidence exists in clear support of such claims. “Accountability” and “transparency” are terms that are not typically measured in the research. Much of what has been studied concerns the effect of BWCs on use of force and complaints against the police, and even on this, the evidence is inconsistent: Some research reveals that BWCs do reduce police force, while other studies show increases; others still find no impact at all.

We repeatedly hear other beliefs and assumptions about BWCs that are either unverified or unverifiable. Police services rarely follow up with evidence or clear metrics around how their BWC programs do what they say they will. This is unacceptable; at a minimum, the taxpaying public should not be expected to support multimillion-dollar annual investments into such programs until police services can explain how exactly BWCs will enhance transparency and accountability.

The limited nature of the academic research on the matter largely stems from a lack of consensus on what accountability and transparency actually mean. Understandings can vary, and police services hardly ever define how those terms are measured.

Another serious issue concerns police control and access to footage. According to the VPD’s body-camera guidelines, “Only the officer who took the footage and other designated staff with approval can view the video,” whereas those who may have been recorded must apply for footage through a freedom of information request, a process subject to lengthy delays.

The practice of permitting police to view BWC footage has itself been criticized because it “enables lying,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union, allowing police to distort the truth more effectively to justify any potential bad behaviour. Allowing police to develop narratives to accompany BWC footage – that is, giving them the opportunity to contextualize what is being viewed, including events preceding an incident that are not part of the footage – further undermines the supposedly objective perspective that body cameras are meant to bring to an incident.

Furthermore, VPD officers can use their discretion to turn off their cameras, including when they have “a reasonable belief” that recording an interaction could compromise police work – a policy detail that effectively invalidates police accountability claims. How the public can expect to hold officers accountable for misdeeds if they are allowed to decide when they can turn off their cameras remains unclear. Additionally, body-camera video that is used in court proceedings will have to be blurred and portions of the video redacted, meaning that publicly viewable footage will always be manipulated and edited by police, thus complicating transparency concerns.

Policies are being enacted based on beliefs about the benefits of body cameras, but belief will not lead to accountability and transparency. While absolute accountability and transparency can never be achieved, clear understandings of these terms defined by the public, and in the interests of the public, should at the very least inform any body-camera program. After all, it is the public who funds the devices.

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