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Toronto Police Wasted Their Body Camera Study

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The Toronto Police Service (TPS) recently released its highly anticipated body camera report. The report highlighted several key findings from the 10-month pilot study which has resulted in Chief Mark Saunders asking the Police Services Board to allow for the approval of equipping all front-line officers with the technology.

Despite the potential of this study, the TPS pilot was poorly designed, methodologically flawed, and a big waste of $500,000 of government funded money. As a result, a significant opportunity to study and test the effectiveness and efficacy of this technology fell by the wayside.

There were several limitations of this study; however, the most significant limitation is the fact that the data are based on opinions and perceptions of body camera effectiveness. Two main findings include: 1) most of the community members who responded to the surveys supported body cameras and believed they will make the police more accountable; and 2) many of the officers support the use of body cameras.

There is nothing wrong with these two findings. They are important and do provide some insight into what the public and the police think of the technology. However, opinions and perceptions do not ensure nor guarantee accountability.

It appears as if the TPS are making excuses or deflecting the attention away from the significant methodological limitations of the study. For example, the report states that, "[i]n terms of achieving the pilot goals, the quantitative results were not compelling, though they did perhaps indicate trends that would have become clearer in a longer study... Although 'the plural of anecdote is not data,' anecdote can be compelling and can influence belief and expectations."

If the study was properly designed and executed, the data would have been more compelling and conclusive than what the report indicates. Because the TPS failed in this respect, we know more about what the public and the police think the cameras may do rather than what the cameras have actually done. The $500,000 funding provided by the provincial government does not appear to have generated a strong return on its investment given the meagre results.

The study should have employed a much stronger methodological design. This is not the first body camera study. The TPS should have consulted with researchers in other settings that tested body cameras and seriously considered replicating the methodology employed in those.

For example, the Rialto, California study employed a strong research design that aimed at testing whether body cameras reduced the use of force and/or citizen complaints against the police. Although this study was not perfect, its design was far more advanced than Toronto's. If the TPS replicated Rialto's research design, they would have had real, generalizable data that could better determine the effectiveness and efficacy of body-worn cameras.

Another major takeaway from the study concerns the high costs associated with the technology. The TPS are estimating that a five-year body camera program will cost approximately $51 million (and this is a conservative estimate). There are several misconceptions regarding the costs of implementing body cameras for police services. Particularly, there has not been an economic or cost-benefit study around body camera implementation so we really do not know about definitive or long-term costs related to the technology.

The report fails to take into account alternative cost-saving strategies such as cloud-based storage which is relatively cheaper than storing data on internal hard drives. Because the TPS did not use cloud storage for the pilot, this may be a reason why they did not include it in their estimates. However, this raises concerns with the study in that it was not comprehensive and not entirely accurate since it did not take into account other cost-saving options for future body camera implementation.

It should be noted that although the TPS do overstate the costs of a body camera program, there are several unknown costs that are associated with the technology and some may not be known until years into a program. However, the estimate suggested in the report should not be taken at face value.

What needs to be addressed is the fact that the TPS are calling for widespread deployment of body cameras for all front-line officers despite knowing the true value of this technology. This is a critical concern moving forward especially when the agency is in the midst of cutting costs to its $1-billion-plus budget.

The results from the TPS body camera study are informative, particularly for other police services across the country. Even though the study was poorly designed, it may be a blessing in disguise because the "positive results" claimed by the TPS will set off a domino effect for other police agencies in choosing whether to test body cameras. For example, shortly after the TPS report was released, the Ottawa Police Service announced that they will begin a pilot program beginning in 2017. It is only a matter of time before other agencies follow suit.

These other services that decide to study body cameras must develop methodologically sound research designs with the help of academic and independent research teams. After more than a year, we still do not know if, and how effective police body cameras are. The TPS failed to shed any further light on this. More research is urgently needed, and stronger methodological designs are necessary in doing so.

It may take some time before we can expect any conclusive results on the effectiveness of body camera technology. If the Toronto Police Services Board approves the request for full body camera deployment, policy makers must develop consistent and uniform guidelines around the deployment and use of body cameras for and by all police services in the country. This is imperative to ensuring that all police services and officers are accountable on the same level and in the same manner.

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