High-profile shootings and charges of racial profiling prompts pilot project, but cop union head raises privacy issues
By TOM GODFREY
Smile. Your curbside encounter with Toronto police officers is about to be captured on video by new body-worn cameras.
A pilot project to begin testing cell-phone-sized cameras was quietly given the green light by Chief Bill Blair at a meeting of senior command officers at police headquarters last week.
The approval of the pilot is timely: the use of body-worn cameras is among 74 recommendations made Wednesday, February 12 by a coroner’s inquest into the police shooting deaths of three mentally ill people. The jury declared all three shootings homicides raising more questions about the effectiveness of current police training in encounters with people in mental distress.
Toronto Deputy Chief Peter Sloly said the force will conduct a six month trial of the cameras, that will be issued first to unformed officers.
“There are a lot of details that have to be worked out,” he said in an interview. “We are only at the beginning stages.”
Sloly said police have to examine the types of equipment available and costs of the cameras, of which some models can be purchased for less than $1,500 each. He says legislation may have to be changed to allow their use.
He notes that dash cameras are already in use in police cruisers and that officers also wear body microphones to record conversations in encounters with the public.
Sloly believes body cams will help deter what he calls frivolous complaints against police. But he also acknowledges that part of the rationale for the devices is to keep the behaviour of officers in check. Complaints of racial profiling being leveled against the force by members of Toronto’s black community has led to a number of legal actions.
“The use of cameras will help modify the behaviour of officers and members of the community,” said Sloly, who adds that the camera project is not just being launched to guard against potential legal actions, but also as part of a plan by police to become more proactive in the community.
Tests of the lapel-worn cameras in Edmonton, Ottawa, Victoria and Calgary showed that complaints against police fell as much as 80 per cent when used by front-line officers. Calgary’s police service has approved the limited use of the lapel cameras that automatically begin videotaping when the emergency siren sounds or an officer exits their patrol car.
The inquest that wrapped up this week examined the deaths of Reyal Jardine-Douglas, Sylvia Klibingaitis and Michael Eligon, who were all gunned down after approaching police with knives or scissors. The recommendations from that inquest noted that a body-worn camera could have provided evidence to help investigators better determine what led to the deaths.
The use of the technology was also among 31 recommendations in a Police and Community Engagement Review (PACER) last year to probe allegations of police bias and racial profiling against members of the black community.
The high-profile police shooting of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim by an officer last July on a TTC streetcar has in particular sparked public outrage around the police handling of encounters with the mentally ill.
But Toronto Police Association boss Mike McCormack expressed concerns the cameras will be used by police supervisors “to spy” on frontline officers. He said officers already have a belt-full of gear to worry about.
“We would like to see a clear policy about their use put down in writing.”
McCormack said the money being spent on the technology could be put to better use adding more “boots to the ground.”
“What concerns me is who is going to paying for all this,” he said. “We are talking about huge storage fees for video and the cost of all this equipment.”
He argues that Toronto police have hundreds of contacts with members of the public every day and less than one per cent of those ever end in a complaint.
He said the recommendations into the inquest of Eligon et al are being studied.