Body cameras create new questions about policing

Jason Vassell, a full-time professor at Durham College in the School of Justice & Emergency Services, knows you’re watching him.

As a constable in the RCMP, Vassell is well aware that in the modern day cameras are everywhere, even police are starting to wear them.

“If I had a camera on I don’t see any of those situation coming out any differently,” Vassell said. “I try to make sure I’m speaking to the public respectfully and that I’m being safe.”

Vassell points to incidents in recent months where communities lost trust in police in the U.S., most notably the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Erin Garner in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The heavy use of police force and grand jury verdicts afterwards that resulted in no charges being laid against police officers involved in those incidents, Vassell said, are causing police departments across North America to look into the use of body-worn cameras, including Durham Region Police Service. It will be studying the possibility of cameras in 2015, with the idea of doing a pilot project at the end of year.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge conducted a study in Rialto, Calif, in 2012 to test the effect body-worn cameras have on policing. The 12-month experiment equipped a thousand of the city’s officers with body cameras, and found that unnecessary force used by officers fell by 59 per cent, while the number of complaints dropped by 87 per cent from the year before.

“I think there’s a lot of pressure on police to be more open about what they’re doing on a daily basis,” said Christopher O’Connor, an assistant professor from the Faculty of Social Science and Humanities at UOIT. “There’s still very little published information about cameras so we’re still trying to get a handle on it.”

O’Connor said body cameras are intended deter bad behaviour by police by having their activities constantly recorded, and can be used as tools to provide evidence in court.

“We’ve seen cameras in police cars and they’ve been very effective in recording what’s going on,” O’Connor said. “But, you have to be standing right in front of them. You move that to the body and it can record wherever it goes.”

O’Connor, however, is concerned about the high cost of the new cameras, saying the money might be better put into to hiring or to better train officers who could work more cases.

“Unfortunately there isn’t necessarily one technology that is better to invest in than another,” O’Connor says. “Different departments will have different needs.”

But, according to Abby Deshman, the director of the public safety program for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, cost is not the only concern.

“They carry with them significant privacy concerns that need to be addressed,” she says. “The police are interacting with members of the public in very sensitive situations.”

Deshman says body cameras have the potential to act as a tool for better oversight, but she adds that police interrogate suspects, go into people’s homes, and are involved in medical emergencies, all of which are personal and private situations that people don’t want filmed. She says knowing who has access to that video footage, what is going to happen to it, what uses it will be put to, are issues that need to be tackled.

“Police officers, as well, may have legitimate privacy concerns of how much of their day should legitimately be put on video tape,” Deshman says. “The other thing that needs to happen is to put in place policies that ensure that these cameras function as accountability tools for everyone.”

Deshman says that officers will have ability to decide when the cameras are on or off, which she says would defeat the accountability goals the cameras are meant to provide. She says all these aspects need to be carefully thought over and addressed in detail, before departments begin to deploy the cameras.

But O’Connor says body cameras are not the sole solution to establishing trust between police and the general public.

“It’s about getting officers out and into the community and building relationships with them.” He said.

More than anything, he says police need to reach out to communities who feel they’ve been wronged to improve oversight and trust.

“If we can make sure police officers are video taping what’s going on then it makes the public feel safer,” Vassell said. “We are having issues where police officers are being accused of things and where officers are using too much force, but if they’re wearing a camera that solves it all because a picture tells a thousand words.”