Equipping officers with body cameras will be among the options considered by the Ottawa Police Services Board during upcoming budget discussions to improve accountability and public trust in the force, despite criticism from some experts who say the expensive equipment hasn’t proven to be effective.
Body-worn cameras are among a slew of ideas being discussed amid calls to widely reform policing services following numerous instances of excessive police violence across North America, especially against Black and Indigenous members of the public.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday he wanted police to wear body cameras to help overcome what he said was public distrust in the forces of law and order, while the head of the RCMP, Brenda Lucki, said in a statement Tuesday she’d like to see a broader rollout of the cameras as an “accountability” measure.
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In response to a Global News inquiry on Tuesday, Sandy Smallwood, acting chair of the Ottawa Police Services Board, said putting cameras on the city’s officers is one approach the oversight body will be considering in the months ahead.
“I plan to raise the topic of body-worn cameras with the chief of police at a future meeting of the board and it will be part of the deliberations on the development of the 2021 budget as well,” she said in an email.
The Ottawa Police Services Board is a civilian oversight committee that proposes a budget for the local force for council approval. Three members of city council, including Mayor Jim Watson, are also members of the board.
An Ottawa Police Service (OPS) spokesperson also told Global News on Tuesday the force will consider revisiting the case for body-worn cameras.
“The OPS will consider everything to improve public trust, and body-worn cameras will be one of those considerations,” the spokesperson said.
The local police force reviewed the “business case” for body cameras in 2016 and got the go-ahead for a pilot project in 2017, but the equipment was never implemented widely.
Matt Skof, the president of the Ottawa Police Association, has long been an advocate for body-worn cameras in the capital.
Skof told Global News that he believes body cameras can not only be used as a reliable accountability mechanism after police conduct issues occur, but also as a preventative measure to prompt officers to rethink their actions, knowing they’re being watched.
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“You definitely have an impact on everybody’s decision making when they know that it’s being recorded.”
There have been numerous pilot projects for the body cameras in police services across the country. Very few have made it standard practice.
Kevin Walby, an associate criminal justice professor at the University of Winnipeg who has studied the use of body-worn cameras on police, said studies in North America looking at the use of these cameras show mixed results.
He added there is very little proof that use-of-force cases are significantly reduced. In some cases, Walby said police felt emboldened by the presence of the camera.
“Some of the police officers in other killings of Black and Indigenous people in North America — the officers have had body cams on,” he said.
Public recordings have played an accountability role too, including in the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died in Minneapolis after a white officer was filmed kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
Skof believes the primary barrier to wider adoption of body-worn cameras has been cost.
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Smallwood said in her statement that cameras would require “a significant financial investment in terms of the technology itself, as well as data storage.” She also noted the need for a policy to address privacy and data governance concerns.
Higher budget costs might be difficult to push through city council amid recent calls to defund the police.
At least one Ottawa city councilor, Capital Ward’s Shawn Menard, has expressed his support for defunding the police and reallocating funds to front-line mental health response teams, as an example.
Protest organizers across the country shared similar sentiments about a move towards body cameras.
Jayda Hope, who co-organized a rally in Winnipeg that drew an estimated 15,000 people last week, tweeted “we don’t want body cams, or to work together or compromise (with) the police … We want abolition and defunding.”
Skof says he’s also in favour of readjusting policing models to take responding to mental health and other social crises off front-line officers’ mandates.
But he argues that body-worn cameras could end up being a long-term investment that ultimately reduces costs related to drawn-out court cases by expediting investigations.
“In a moment of crisis, there are these opportunities to look at how policing evolves,” Skof says.
— With files from Canadian Press.
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