04/18/2018 11:41 EDT | Updated 04/18/2018 11:44 EDT

Local Police Shouldn't Take A Blind Approach To Adopting Body Cameras

Taxpayers in Fredericton, across Canada should be concerned that police agencies are equipping officers with technology that hasn't been adequately tested.

The officer-involved shooting death of Stephon Clark in Sacramento, Cali. is a recent incident of police intervention that has caused public outcry and concern over the killing of black men. The controversy surrounding this incident is amplified by the fact that it was recorded by body-worn camera (BWC) technology, but the officers wearing the cameras chose to mute the audio. This incident, and others like it, signals the need for further investigation into the efficacy of BWCs.

The Canadian Press Images/Francis Vachon
Fredericton Police badge.

The expansion of police BWCs has been widespread recently with thousands of law enforcement agencies adopting the technology across the world. BWCs have many benefits such as reducing illegitimate use of force by police; decreasing complaints against officers; enhancing accountability and transparency; and improving evidence collection. However, there are many concerns with BWCs including high costs, privacy, data storage and policy development.

The Fredericton Police Force (FPF) is the latest Canadian police service to join the trend in adopting BWCs. The FPF announced that the service has entered into a five-year contract with Axon Public Safety Canada — a subsidiary of Axon Enterprise and the leading BWC manufacturer in the world — to purchase six cameras and online storage for $115,000.

There are several concerns with the decision to adopt BWCs in this case. The FPF conducted a 90-day pilot project of BWC use and very little information regarding the results was shared with the public. The pilot involved six officers wearing cameras, and the goals of this project were: 1) collecting evidence; 2) enhancing transparency, public trust and confidence; 3) enhancing officer accountability and professionalism; 4) assisting in Criminal Code and Police Act investigations; and 5) de-escalating situations. It is unclear if the pilot was successful in addressing any of these goals.

This lack of transparency is concerning.

The FPF only communicated one result from their pilot project: the officers wearing the cameras gave the technology an 80 per cent satisfaction rating. Does this justify entering into a long-term contract to adopt BWC technology? Taxpayers in Fredericton and across Canada should be concerned that their local police agencies are securing long-term contracts to equip officers with technology that has not been adequately, effectively and rigourously tested.

Further, the public should be even more concerned that their city councillors approved this decision without seeing or being presented with any findings from the pilot study. How can you make an informed decision on a long-term investment without any evidence of success or effectiveness? After days of silence, the FPF released information about the pilot entitled "Setting the Record Straight – Digital Management System." However, the information in this document says nothing about the findings from the study and insists that a summary of the results of an internal survey is forthcoming. This lack of transparency is concerning.

Only a handful of Canadian law enforcement agencies have piloted BWCs, and only a select few use the technology. Most police services in Canada are currently shying away from adopting BWCs. Several police chiefs and leaders claim that the technology does not meet service needs, is too costly, or lacks definitive empirical research. For example, the RCMP, Edmonton, Halifax, Hamilton, and Ottawa have all chosen to delay or pass on implementing BWCs. Other agencies such as Toronto have a desire to adopt the cameras, but there is no guarantee that this will happen in the near future. The public needs to be made aware of the lack of research on BWCs in Canada. There has been extensive opportunity to conduct proper and rigorous study on BWCs, but this has failed to materialize.

Getty Images
A police officer wears an Axon body camera.

One area the FPF was interested in exploring was whether cameras civilized interactions between traffic officers and motorists. These interactions are among the most frequent police-citizen encounters and these officers often receive complaints. The public should be questioning whether the proper study design procedures were used to measure these variables. Did the cameras contribute to more civilized behaviour from motorists? Did officers give out more traffic citations? Less citations? Was there a reduction in complaints against officers? No findings related to these important questions were reported by the FPF which is problematic given the fact that the Force has green lighted BWCs for permanent adoption.

Take for example the Boston Police Department (BPD). The mayor, Martin Walsh, was originally skeptical of the technology's effectiveness but still ordered a year-long pilot study. The BPD teamed up with researchers at Northeastern University to conduct a proper, randomized-controlled experiment. Preliminary results suggest BWCs can benefit the BPD by reducing the number of complaints filed against officers. Shortly after the preliminary findings were reported, Walsh committed to adopting BWCs based on the evidentiary benefits shown in the study and has dedicated an initial $2 million to fund a body camera program.

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This example provides a blueprint for how BWC adoption should occur. This example is evident in many other U.S. and international jurisdictions but has yet to occur in Canada. Taking a blind approach to BWC adoption is dangerous and consequential. This technology could deliver several benefits for both the police and the public. However, it is a poor sign of leadership and initiative when you have the opportunity to study the efficacy of BWCs but fail to do so, and instead decide to permanently implement the technology at the public's expense and without community consultation.

In a time when evidence-based research is a standard approach to well-informed decision making, some police leaders in Canada are disregarding this method. Hopefully Canadian police services looking to adopt BWCs in the future follow the approach taken by the Boston Police Department and let Fredericton serve as a misguided and ill-advised example.

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