POLITICS

Toronto Police To Test Body Cameras For Officers

05/15/2015 09:33 EDT | Updated 05/15/2016 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - Toronto police launched a pilot project to test body-worn cameras for its officers on Friday, joining a growing number of forces trying out the technology, which has been greeted with a mix of optimism and caution.

The year-long project in Canada's most populous city will see 100 officers wear the cameras as three different models are tested. A report on the exercise will be completed by June 2016.

"I think that this project has the potential to strengthen the policing profession, and I think it has the potential to strengthen our relationship with the community and enhance public trust," Staff. Supt. Tom Russell said as the project was launched.

"We believe that body-worn cameras are a valuable piece of technology that will provide an unbiased, accurate account of our interaction with the public."

The cameras will be activated whenever there is a call for service or someone is being investigated. Informal conversations with citizens and interactions without an investigative element will not require the activation of the cameras.

Officers have been trained on privacy and human rights issues, Russell noted, and will have to tell people when the cameras are rolling in most situations.

In private spaces, such as homes and businesses, an officer needs consent in most situations before activating a camera. But officers executing a search warrant, or those in "exigent" circumstances will be allowed to record in private spaces without consent.

The project — which currently has a budget of $500,000 — will store encrypted video from body-worn cameras on a police server for a year, unless it is needed for a longer period of time.

In launching the project, Toronto falls in line with similar testing efforts carried out in Vancouver, Edmonton and Hamilton, among others. The Calgary police service has already equipped hundreds of its officers with body-worn cameras.

But the implementation of the new technology has raised privacy concerns in a number of quarters.

"There's potential for them to be a good accountability tool, but only if the right privacy protocols are put into place," said Canadian Civil Liberties Association executive director Sukanya Pillay. "We're going to be looking nationwide at the use of body-worn police cameras."

The country's federal and provincial privacy watchdogs recently released a guidance document on the cameras, saying police should consider whether the expected benefits of the devices outweigh the impact on privacy and personal information.

The guidelines also emphasized the need to address issues such as accountability, employee training and the handling of requests by individuals for access to recordings.

In Toronto, police noted they consulted with the Human Rights Commission, the Ministry of the Attorney General and the Privacy Commission to ensure the privacy of the public is protected.

The force's pilot project, although not the country's first, will likely be followed with interest, said one observer.

"Being that it's such a large service in Canada's most populated city, police services across the country are all going to be watching very closely to see how this works," said Christopher Schneider, a Wilfrid Laurier University professor who studies police and technology.

"There's not a whole lot of policy or law to help direct police service and law enforcement agencies into how exactly they're supposed to be using these cameras in a way that recognizes privacy rights."

Among those privacy concerns are worries about having the cameras activated when police deal with sensitive populations like young offenders or alleged victims of domestic abuse.

In terms of transparency — which the cameras are supposed to improve — giving officers the power to turn on and off the camera might lead to questions about accountability, Schneider said. On the other hand, having the cameras running all the time could infringe on officer privacy.

The long-term logistics related to using body-worn cameras will likely also need to be worked out, said Schneider, noting that the full costs associated with storing camera data and determining just how long video ought to be stored will need to be studied.

In a world where cellphone videos of police interactions with the public can be placed online within minutes, however, body-worn cameras might offer authorities a way to regain control of the situation's narrative, Schneider suggested.

"Police are rolling out these cameras so that when they have the recording on their chest, this becomes the official or authorized recording of the situation," he said. "This is probably going to be the future of police work. There are just far more questions than there are answers."

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