The use of body cameras has become a new staple in modern policing. Though much more widely adopted in the United States and the United Kingdom, several major cities in Canada have been adopting their use. Calgary began its pilot project in 2012 with 50 cameras and has since expanded to all uniformed officers in 2013. The Toronto Police Service rolled out cameras in two precincts, its traffic division and its Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS) response team.
Criticism of body camera adoption has centred on privacy concerns and how the cameras are to be used and regulated. This includes wanting verification that their use complies with privacy laws, and questions like how police inform people that they are on camera, whether police have access to edit footage, or whether and how a member of the public could ask police to turn off their camera while speaking to them. There does not seem to be any general opposition to their use so long as there are robust regulations; even the Canadian Civil Liberties Association supporting body cameras, if only as a measure to hold police accountable. It was possible that body cameras could have mitigated the shooting deaths of Sammy Yatim (Toronto) and Steve Mesic (Hamilton).
From the police perspective, some have questioned the return on investment for the millions spent on cameras and data storage, the effectiveness of cameras in reducing confrontations, and whether another civilian layer of oversight is needed. This also leads to the fear among officers that showing restraint due to potential scrutiny will cause them to hesitate, and thus put their lives in danger.
Last week, a detective in Birmingham, Alabama claimed that such an occurrence happened to him, which allowed a suspect to overpower and then pistol-whip him. Alternatively body camera footage and civilians videotaping police interactions have contradicted narratives put forward by officers, such as the University of Cincinnati shooting of Samuel Dubose this summer. Or in April 2015 when South Carolina officer Michael Slager planted his stun gun on an unarmed man he had just killed after shooting him five times in the back when Walter Scott fled on foot from a traffic stop.
“Better 12 than 6” – is a saying in law enforcement that gets to the psychology of police shootings. Better to see 12 jurors than six pallbearers. While it may not be a dominant mindset in the police force, it does speak to the dangers that officers know they face. There’s also the concern that the use of reasonable force will be placed under unfair scrutiny by those who don’t understand the realities of modern policing.
One of the first pilot projects was conducted in Rialto, California and was the subject of a Cambridge University study in 2014. Researchers Barak Ariel, William A. Farrar and Alex Sutherland published their paper in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology in November 2014. They found that police “use of force” happened twice as often with the non-equipped control group. The study also found that complaints against police dropped. In nominal terms, complaints dropped between 50-89 per cent, while the Cambridge study expressed it as a decrease from 0.7 complaints to 0.07 complaints per 1000 interactions.
While eyewitness testimony is highly respected in the adjudication of the law, it is deeply flawed when compared to physical and scientific evidence. We generally don’t take in specific details of our surroundings at all times, and it is especially harder to do when there’s commotion. The investigation into Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson Missouri had a wide range of false and contradictory testimony given in favour and against Officer Darren Wilson, some by people who were not even present during the shooting. Without more robust evidence, a defendant is at an extreme disadvantage when the situation is simply their testimony versus an officer’s. The superior nature of video footage, combined with how it influences interactions on both the part of the police and the members of the public, will likely push the further proliferation of body cameras throughout the West. It provides a higher standard of evidence for police to be honest in their response to a suspect and in their testimony thereafter, while also making the public take stock in how they treat law enforcement.
Along with civilian demand for body cameras must come further understanding when police do make an error in judgment. We must understand another police reality of “awful but lawful”, where the optics of restraining a suspect may look bad but are reasonable for the safety of the officer. Watching a tape afterward should not become an ivory tower to rail against officers. A camera will not inherently change the dangers of policing, nor will it change the fact that officers are human.