How body cameras can be a PR boon to Toronto police

They could encourage both cops and the public to act more civilly towards each other – and go a long way to changing public perceptions about police work

Toronto police are engaged in plenty of public filming, but don’t seem to want to become walking recording devices themselves.

A pilot project to outfit 100 Toronto officers with body cameras officially got rolling Monday after much study and resistance from the police union which has raised concerns about the devices being used by management to “spy” on rank and file officers.

It’s a little more complicated than that. The use of body-worn cameras was among 74 recommendations made by a coroner’s inquest into the police shooting deaths of three mentally ill people last year. The jury declared all three shootings homicides.

Police proponents believe cameras will help deter frivolous complaints against police. But part of the rationale for the devices stems from complaints of racial profiling which have led to a number of legal claims against Toronto police. Here’s what deputy chief Peter Sloly had to say on the subject to NOW after former chief Bill Blair quietly gave the green light to the pilot more than a year ago.  

Police seem a wee bit nervous when cameras are turned on them. But closed circuit cameras keeping an eye on the public are everywhere – at intersections, in the Entertainment District, and elsewhere in our city. And they’re never turned off. Footage is overwritten every 72 hours, but Big Brother is always watching.

We’re told Big Brother cams enhance public safety. But under the rules being proposed for the use of police body cams, I doubt the best footage will ever be captured.

Unlike public cameras, the new body cameras officers will start sporting are turned off until an officer makes a decision to hit record. When exactly is an officer going to find time to do that during a stressful encounter that is rapidly escalating? Body cams used by Calgary police automatically begin recording when a police patrol car’s emergency lights are activated or an officer exits their vehicle.

But like everything in their equipment belt, body cams being born by Toronto police will be used mostly at police discretion. A situation can easily escalate before filming begins and vital minutes suddenly missed from an encounter.

But what if officers were made to wear a constantly recording body cams? They could change the public perception of how they’re viewed, which is currently dominated online by third-party vids showing them in unflattering situations. 

An arrest is worth way more YouTube views than a non arrest, but body cameras could help both cops and public act more civilly towards each other.

Body cams might have officers performing above and beyond the call of duty knowing their actions will be captured on video. Think about it, cop rescue or whatever making the evening news. What’s to lose? The smartphone camera has already become the great equalizer, providing almost all of us with an ability to cop watch.

Experience shows where body cams are used that police attitudes toward the public is changed too. Most of us become more polite when cameras are rolling. Fascinatingly, the same officer I’ve been jawing with at our 420 pot legalization rallies fist bumped me last time and said he had to “act like a cop” because people with phones were recording our most recent encounter. 

The public has had to accept a growing number of CCTV cameras. Body cams could go a long way toward changing public attitudes about police.

Rules on the police use of body cameras 

100 Officers who will take part in initial roll out of body cameras pilot project (including from the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy Rapid Response Teams, 43 Division Community Response Unit, 55 Division Primary Response Unit and the Traffic Services Motor Squad).

32 Hours of training received by officers who’ll be taking part in the pilot project.

All body-worn cameras are “on” at all times when an officer is on duty, but they must be activated for the camera to start recording. The “on” mode allows the preceding 30 seconds to a minute before a camera is activated to be recorded. 

Cameras must be activated by an officer “As soon as reasonably possible, prior to arriving at a call for service or at the decision to initiate any investigative contact,” according to police protocol.

An officer is not required to let a person they are speaking with know they are being recorded when that conversation is taking place in a public space. 

An officer is required to obtain permission to activate body camera when entering a private residence or business to conduct an investigation.

Circumstances under which officers are allowed to record in private spaces without explicit permission include during the execution of a search warrant or other “exigent circumstances.”

Cameras do not need to be activated when an officer is having a casual conversation with a member of the public. | @nowtoronto

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