Police body cameras are a step toward accountability

Police body cameras are a step toward accountability

By Vince Semenuk

Alberta is the first province to mandate that officers working for municipal police services and self-administered Indigenous departments must wear body cameras while on duty. This makes sense since the cameras will:

  • help keep law enforcement officers accountable;
  • provide video evidence of interactions with the accused during the arrest;
  • show police misconduct, if that is the case; or
  • possibly help prove the innocence of the accused.

In April 2019, body-worn cameras (BWCs) were deployed to all patrol and traffic section officers in Calgary, as well as some frontline officers. In addition, police vehicles are equipped with dashboard and back-seat cameras that record audio and video. They are automatically activated when emergency lights are turned on or the vehicle is involved in a collision.

The importance of in-car camera footage is noted in a recent Court of King’s Bench decision that involved a female driver found in a SUV in a ditch after it hit a lamp pole. When police arrived, they noted an “odour of alcohol coming from her, that her eyes were glossy, and that she could not balance well,” according to court documents.

After she failed a breathalyzer test she was given an Immediate Roadside Suspension sanction and a Notice of Administrative Penalty (NAP), barring her from operating a motor vehicle in Alberta. She also received a $1,200 fine.

She was required to file for Judicial Review at the Court of King’s Bench given that the Adjudicator at the SafeRoads Alberta initial review did not agree that the video of the investigation was a required record under the SafeRoads Alberta Regulations. Justice Whitling disagreed.

He found that all recipients in administrative hearings are entitled to procedural fairness and that the common law principles of fairness required that if there was video evidence of what took place, then it ought to be disclosed by the Director of SafeRoads Alberta, for the purposes of the review. See paragraphs 71 – 101 in Smit v. Director of SafeRoads Alberta, 2023 ABKB 435.

The court granted a review of the penalty, noting the adjudicator “reached an unreasonable decision and rendered the proceedings before him unfair by concluding that the Applicant was not entitled to be provided with any video or audio recordings created by the RCMP with respect to the events at issue in the hearing.”

A way to increase trust in policing

When the BWC policy was announced in March, Alberta’s Minister of Public Safety touted it as a way to increase public trust in policing and help review interactions.

"By documenting the behaviour of the police in public, collecting better evidence, and improving our approach to resolving complex complaints during investigations, [body-worn cameras] represent an objective measure to show what occurs in the moment," Mike Ellis said at the time.

The Edmonton Police Service (EPS) is the last municipal police force in Alberta to accept body-worn cameras (BWC). In July, the EPS launched a six-month pilot project equipping 35 frontline police officers with the devices.

This is the second such pilot project in that city. One conducted by the EPS from 2011 to 2014 reportedly found “no statistically significant evidence that BWCs reduced police use of force or citizen complaints, principal reasons cited among other issues for not adopting the cameras,” according to one Edmonton newspaper opinion column.

The writer questioned if the body cams would increase transparency. He noted that “police actions captured on BWC recordings are rarely made publicly available, as video is usually not publicly released in Canada.”

He referenced a 2020 Calgary Police Service (CPS) report, which states that between May 2019 and October 2020, officers recorded more than 880,000 videos, or about 195,000 hours of footage.

Video not made available to the public

“An astounding amount of video, but none of it was made available to the public by CPS, even in situations where formal requests for release were made in the interests of transparency,” he claimed.

Other highlights from the CPS review executive summary include:

  • It requires many staff and resources to implement a BWC program, with costs estimated to be $5 million annually, including hardware, software licensing and staff costs.
  • Body cams are “perceived to improve public trust and confidence in CPS.”
  • The number of use-of-force incidents declined more than 10 per cent in the year after the program’s implementation.
  • There was a slight increase in the number of formal complaints (citizen and internal) against CPS officers in the year after body cams were worn. On average, complaint resolution time was reduced by half, with 84 per cent of complaints resolved within three months.
  • Anecdotal feedback suggests enhanced Crown and court outcomes such as early case resolution and reduced court time.
  • Officers say the body cams have improved their professionalism and communication skills. “They use the camera as a tool to de-escalate high-conflict interactions and think more carefully about how to respond to situations, including use of force.”
  • There are inconsistencies in training, policy and practice that make it challenging to define, measure and manage compliance with the body cam program.
  • Although officers are supportive of using body cam footage to resolve formal complaints, they are critical of how BWC video is used internally to discipline members.
  • BWCs are identified as a tool that can improve transparency and accountability both internally and externally. However, it is unclear how “CPS defines transparency and accountability” and “the processes or mechanisms by which BWCs will be used to achieve transparency and accountability outcomes.”
  • CPS “experiences challenges to efficiently vet and redact private information from the volume of video sent for court disclosure and public Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIP) requests.”

When the cameras should be on

Officers are expected to wear the cameras, which are approximately the size of a pack of playing cards, on the front of their uniform at all times when interacting with the public, but especially when:

  • an arrest or detention is likely or happening;
  • the use-of-force is possible;
  • they are having investigative contact with the public;
  • a legal demand is being made; or
  • a charge is being laid,

Officers can turn the camera on and off, with a light indicating when they are recording. Police are allowed to keep the cameras off in limited situations, such as when the light would give away their location during a nighttime incident involving a person with a firearm.

A Calgary news report notes that 84 per cent of concerns raised about police conduct are now addressed in less than three months and 96 per cent are addressed within a year.

“No question there has been a learning curve with this technology, but we are very pleased with the success so far and are fully committed to making the improvements needed to ensure continued success,” states CPS Chief Mark Neufeld.

The reports add a survey found 95 per cent of Calgarians support the use of body-worn cameras, and 94 per cent of officers with cameras use them regularly.

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Criminal Justice