10/14/2014 02:44 EDT | Updated 12/14/2014 05:59 EST

Vancouver Police To Wear Body Cameras To Disband Homeless Camp

VANCOUVER - Vancouver's police force is becoming the latest across the country to outfit officers with wearable video cameras, deploying the devices for the first time ahead of a potential confrontation over a homeless encampment.

Police Chief Jim Chu said as many as eight officers will have small video cameras strapped to their chests as they enforce a court order to disband makeshift shelters in Oppenheimer Park, located in the city's impoverished Downtown Eastside neighbourhood. A judge has ordered the camp cleared by Wednesday at 10 p.m.

The force described its decision to use body-mounted cameras as a limited trial, and Chu stressed there has been no decision about whether to put such devices into widespread use among patrol officers.

But the chief noted the force already routinely uses handheld video cameras at large public events and protests, and he said wearable cameras will now be used in such circumstances.

"We think the body-worn video will prevent people from acting in a difficult or violent manner," Chu said Tuesday. "We believe people will behave better when they know they're being recorded."

A B.C. Supreme Court judge issued a ruling last week ordering the campers at Oppenheimer Park to leave. Tents sprouted up in late July, eventually prompting an eviction notice from the city's park board, as well as citations from the fire department.

Chu said police didn't have specific information to suggest there would be violence or other problems at the homeless camp.

The force is using devices manufactured by GoPro, which makes small video cameras that have become popular among extreme sports enthusiasts. The cameras are small, waterproof, nearly indestructible and can be mounted just about anywhere.

Several police forces across the country have experimented with body-mounted cameras, though for the most part they have proceeded slowly. Municipal forces in Calgary and Toronto have recently announced plans to expand the use of cameras.

The potential growth of body-mounted cameras — adding yet another form of police surveillance — has raised privacy concerns, though even some civil liberties and police watchdog groups have cautiously endorsed the technology as a way to keep officers accountable.

Conversely, police departments have argued in favour of cameras to protect officers against unfounded allegations of abuse, insisting grainy cellphone videos that find their way onto YouTube rarely tell the whole story.

"It'll show the officer using force," Chu said, referring to video clips shot by members of the public, "but it won't show what led up to it."

Rick Parent, a former police officer from Delta, B.C., who is now a professor in Simon Fraser University's police studies program, said cameras can help the public and the police.

"There's an argument that it will keep both sides more civil, so the police are going to try harder to use tactical communication skills and will be even less likely to use force, and also the public may be a little more responsive, more co-operative," Parent said in an interview.

"The other positive thing is that if the police officer is abusing his or her authority or using excessive force, we're going to see that clearly."

Parent pointed to research out of the United States that has shown a drop in police complaints in jurisdictions where cameras are used, though he said more research is needed in Canada.

Josh Paterson, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said forces must adopt comprehensive policies to ensure the technology isn't abused.

"We know that it can be quite useful under certain circumstances, but there needs to be clear protocols in place that balance the interests of police on the one hand with privacy rights," said Paterson.

Paterson said the Vancouver Police Department should have created such protocols before using body-mounted cameras, even on a limited basis.

Meanwhile, it remains unclear what will happen when the injunction at the homeless camp takes effect Wednesday night.

Vancouver police said officers will be on hand to keep the peace as city workers dismantle the camp and anyone who ignores the injunction could face arrest. The police chief said municipal staff would be referring people to housing providers and shelters.

But D.J. Larkin, a lawyer with Pivot Legal Society, which has represented the campers in Oppenheimer Park, said it's possible the park still won't be cleared by the end of the night.

"My understanding is that not everyone has been connected with a meaningful alternative and a lot of people are still wondering where they're going to go," said Larkin.

"I can't predict whether it will be empty by 10 p.m., but what I can say is that it's really, really full right now. It will take a massive effort for people to move on in the next 24 hours."

Follow @ByJamesKeller on Twitter

Photo gallery How To Avoid Surveillance See Gallery