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Abdi Hersi Headshot

Body Worn Cameras Could Stop Toronto Police From Being Racist

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Luiz Felipe Castro via Getty Images
Luiz Felipe Castro via Getty Images

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This past fall I was carded by a Toronto police officer near my own neighbourhood. It wasn't my first time being carded, but this time was different. This time I was fed up because I had learned about these issues as part of a grassroots organization, the Policing Literacy Initiative, and I knew my city deserved better. During the incident I thought to myself "how can I put an end to this practice, or at least make these officers think twice before engaging with me?"

After returning home that day I did some research on the topic of police surveillance and came across Body Worn Cameras (BWC). Since then I've been researching and advocating for the use of BWC because they would prove that Toronto police disproportionately target minorities and community outrage in the city is justified.

Conducting research confirmed two things I assumed beforehand: that public trust in police is badly broken in Toronto and that coming up with a single answer to address this issue was next to impossible. Body cameras are not enough to address all policing issues. Nobody ever claimed that BWC would eliminate bias and racial profiling issues. The truth is that there is no one-size-fits-all measure that restores public trust in police. But in Toronto, where there is a clear crisis of distrust between minority communities and police, it becomes clear that police officers might have to wear these cameras to regain some of that trust.

In my research I've come to understand that the benefits of the cameras go both ways. BWC help protect the public from police brutality and also protect officers from frivolous complaints. As Toronto Deputy Police Chief Peter Sloly said in an interview with the Policing Literacy Initiative, "whenever you put cameras anywhere it does suppress that overt element of misconduct, whether it be officers mistreating people or people mistreating officers." I believe BWC could serve as a tool to win confidence and trust by providing hard evidence of accountability.

A 2012 scientific study of BWC with police in Rialto, California confirms what common sense already suggests; people behave better when they are being watched. That's just human nature. Yet, even though there is widespread support for the cameras, some claim the measure is not effective. People holding this position ignore the growing collection of data and analysis that continues to mount in support of these cameras.

This is why I was disappointed to see an article in the Globe and Mail that undermined the importance of introducing these cameras to Toronto Police Service. Authors Daniel Bear and Johannes Reiken also made use of objectionable language. For example, "Policing is a complex and challenging job, and it is inevitable that things will occasionally go wrong."

Go wrong is a dismissive stance to take. Go wrong is what transpired this past summer with Sammy Yatim, the teen who was shot during a streetcar incident involving TPS. Go wrong characterized the Adam Nobody case; his shattered cheekbone, broken nose and black eye became the face of controversy surrounding police conduct during the G20 summit in Toronto. These incidents highlighted the need for more measures to protect the public from police misconduct. BWC could be part of the solution.

As Canada's biggest municipal force, Toronto should be a leader in testing and implementing these new technologies. Yet, in contrast to police departments across the country, Toronto continues to lag behind on this issue. Toronto Police Services Board Chair Alok Mukherjee told the Policing Literacy Initiative last fall that, as of yet, "the Board does not take a position on the use of body worn cameras." He claimed more research needs to be done.

The in-car dashboard cameras now used by Toronto police -- a measure endorsed by the Toronto Police Services Board -- have been praised by many as a positive tool to ensure greater accountability, but they do have deficiencies. The problem with dashboard cameras, and civilian use of cell phone cameras for that matter, is that the point of contact is often not captured. These cameras only start recording once contact has already occurred. As such, the footage fails to provide context, which makes video evidence only partial and not very helpful in court. By providing hard evidence, cameras would save money used to gather evidence. It would help address the city's backlog of cases in the court system and cut costs related to lawsuits.

There is no doubt that every police agency in North America will have BWC within the next decade. Thankfully, Toronto Police Services will pilot the use of these cameras this year. Pilot programs in other cities, like Calgary, have led to the expanded use of the cameras, where officers now wear the devices on a full-time basis. Community groups should hold Toronto police and the Toronto Police Services Board accountable to further implementation of this important tool of community safety.