Public trust in the police could suffer if only some frontline officers in B.C. wear body cameras, warns the head of the civilian body overseeing all police. But civil libertarians remain concerned about their use.
While the RCMP plans to roll out body cameras across the country, B.C.’s 11 municipal forces can decide for themselves whether to mandate them in the current absence of a directive from the provincial government. This could mean that cases involving accused police officers or citizens could have different levels of evidence.
Independent Investigations Office Chief Civilian Director Ron MacDonald said citizens walk around with high-definition in their pockets and have come to expect that frontline police wear body cameras given the availability of the technology. If officers do not wear them, it “could lead to a perception that they are hiding something,” creating a dangerous distrust, MacDonald said.
“That perception would only be exacerbated if you have some agencies in the province who do have body cameras and others who don’t. That’s the real issue.”
MacDonald made his thoughts known as Alberta prepares to roll out police body-worn cameras province-wide, something B.C. will not do.
Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth confirmed in an emailed statement to Black Press Media that the province won’t create a uniform standard across the province.
“While the RCMP is implementing the use of body worn cameras, it remains up to municipal police agencies to decide if they wish to use them,” he said.
Farnworth said the province has been working with municipalities and chiefs of police on the issue of body-worn cameras for some time.
“(In) 2019 we put in place standard operating procedures for their use in B.C.,” he said. “These standards ensure that any agency choosing to deploy body-worn cameras will do so in a consistent manner with an appropriate balance between privacy and accountability.”
MacDonald disagrees. He’s calling for not only a province-wide introduction of body cameras, but a national adoption of them too.
“(A) body camera is a third-party, independent witness of what happened,” MacDonald said. “Now, it may not see everything, it may not catch everything. But it is still independent, objective evidence of what happened, which together with other evidence, can be extremely helpful in trying to determine what happened in any incident involving police and in interaction with the public.”
He acknowledged that body cameras can come with costs, adding that government should financially assist police agencies if necessary.
“It’s a cost that is necessary to help the public maintain faith in their police and that is a very important part of the rule of law in our society,” he said.
Others feel differently. Privacy experts including the Office of the Privacy Commissioner have raised concerns about body cameras as they may end up recording a lot of personal information about individuals without their knowledge or consent.
MacDonald said this hasn’t been a major issue within the many police forces across Canada and the United States that already use the cameras, however.
“We already have many state institutions where cameras are routinely used and we don’t see routine breaches of people’s (privacy),” he said. Authorities and experts have already sorted out many of the issues around the use of body cameras, he added. “We have good rules to control those situations,” he said.
MacDonald said the whole point of body cameras is to help the public to have confidence in police.
This is all about the public’s interest in ensuring that not only police are accountable, but that also crimes can persecuted, he added.
Meghan McDermott, Policy Director with British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, expressed several concerns about body-cams, starting with privacy. Police responding to homes while wearing body-cams could end up record a lot of sensitive personal information and help identify vulnerable individuals, McDermott said, adding that body-cams could also be combined with facial recognition software in the future.
Body-cams are also expensive and money going toward them could go toward other areas more in line with what communities want, she said. “From a democratic perspective, it is a bit frustrating to see people wanting to have this conversation and that we continue to see police budget increase,” she said. “This technology is extremely expensive.”
She also questioned the argument that body-cams promise to hold police officers accountable. “There is not clear evidence yet that they actually add to police accoutability generally,” she said. “There definitely is a crisis in policing with accountability and we see over and over again that politicians and even police themselves will say, ‘hey look, we have the golden ticket here.’” But technology alone won’t solve this problem, she added.
BCCLA made many of these points in a 2021 submission to the Special Committee on Reforming the Police Act, arguing against body cameras in calling for radical reforms in policing.
“We cannot get stuck on the ineffective hamster wheel of more technological fixes, like police-worn body cameras or more funding for diversity hiring or training,” it reads.
But in September 2022, BCCLA was among the signatories of a letter demanding that B.C. and Canada urgently reform policing following the death of Haida Elder Jimmie Johannesson in 2022. The letter’s call to action included a “mandatory policy for police body cameras to be worn by every municipal, provincial and federal police member, at all times, while on duty” with the recommendation that individual officers would be unable to turn their cameras on and off on their own.
McDermott acknowledged the tension in BCCLA’s position. BCCLA does not want governments to intrude into the privacy of individuals without clear evidence that it will be helpful, she said. “Yet here we are working with families and communities, where they are just so desparate that could provide any clue as to the last moments or what might have motivated certain people to take certain actions.”
BCCLA will continue to monitor the issue, McDermott said. “What we are trying to do is to focus on the best way to make this (work), to make it as democratic as possible, to make it as fair as possible, consistent with human rights principles…,” she said.