Effectiveness of RCMP body cameras will depend on clear goals, policies, say experts
“No piece of technology is going to solve deep-seated trust issues in a community with the police”
After a significant increase in calls for its officers to be equipped with body-worn cameras, the RCMP announced last week, on June 8, that it would begin work on a broad deployment of the devices nationwide.
But experts who study these devices say their potential benefits will depend on what plans and policies are adopted by the RCMP for their use.
A common mistake when adopting body cameras is rushing into them, said Aili Malm, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at California State University Long Beach.
Malm provides technical assistance and training for police departments on body-worn cameras throughout the United States, where the devices have been used for longer and are more widespread.
“One of the first things we ask departments is, why do you want to do this? What are your goals?” she said.
“If you don’t have clear goals, you don’t have a good policy. You’re just implementing technology and no technology is a panacea to all the problems we’re seeing in policing right now.”
When David Qamaniq, Nunavut’s MLA for Tununiq, raised the issue of body-worn cameras earlier this year during the winter sitting of the legislature, he did so “in favour of methods and technologies which can safeguard us against acts of violence.”
“Concerns have been raised about violent interactions between police and Nunavummiut. We have read about it in newspapers and seen video clips posted on social media. The concerns are real,” he said.
Less than a week later there was an RCMP-involved shooting in Kinngait.
Including that incident, there have been three RCMP-involved shootings in Nunavut since Qamaniq spoke.
Two were fatal and all involved Inuit.
Since then, others have joined the call for cameras, including Nunavut Senator Dennis Patterson and MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq.
On June 2, the same day that Iqaluit Mayor Kenny Bell expressed his interest in equipping the RCMP with body-worn cameras, a video surfaced on social media that showed a Kinngait RCMP officer knocking down an Inuk man with a vehicle door.
The incident made national news at a time when widespread protests against police brutality had begun in the United States and Canada.
Following that, Amanda Jones, chief superintendent of the Nunavut RCMP, also lent her support for the cameras.
“I think we are all on the same page that we would like to bring in the body cams,” she said.
On June 8, less than a week later, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, after speaking with RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki about the issue, also voiced his support.
“It is something that is, in my opinion, what we need to move forward with,” he said.
“I’m committing to raising this with the provinces this week, so we can move forward as quickly as possible.”
Later that day the RCMP responded with a statement: “The commissioner has confirmed that the RCMP will engage in work and discussion with policing partners and the NPF [the RCMP union] on a broader rollout of body-worn cameras.”
One of the recurring hopes expressed by those in support of the cameras is an increase in trust.
But for Malm, that’s problematic.
“No piece of technology is going to solve deep-seated trust issues in a community with the police,” she said.
“That being said, it can be an important piece of the puzzle, if implemented correctly.”
“A really complicated question”
Prior to the RCMP’s commitment to roll out the cameras nationally, the obstacles in the territory repeatedly flagged by Jones and by Nunavut’s minister of justice, Jeannie Ehaloak, were the durability of the devices, their cost and the logistics of video storage.
When Qamaniq first asked about the implementation of body-worn cameras in the legislature during the fall sitting last October, one of the answers he received was a concern about the durability of the devices themselves.
“We know that in the wintertime, if you have a camera, because of the harsh climate, we don’t know how these cameras will withstand within the weather or in the vehicles, but we are checking into it,” responded Ehaloak.
The City of Iqaluit bylaw enforcement has been using body-worn cameras in some capacity for roughly five years, first as a trial and now all four bylaw officers are equipped with one.
According to Rod Mugford, the city’s chief enforcement officer, the weather isn’t an issue.
“They don’t freeze up. They don’t go dead,” he said.
“The cold doesn’t affect them.”
Mugford also said that the devices aren’t even prone to fogging when transitioning from cold environments to warm ones or vice versa.
Another concern about the cameras was their price.
According to Malm, that concern is shared by many police departments. “It’s a huge cost.”
Often, it’s not the devices themselves, but the file storage that’s expensive.
“Most of the large vendors will offer the cameras for free as long as you sign a contract for their storage,” said Malm.
The City of Iqaluit uses a vendor called Axon, which uses its own proprietary cloud-based storage system called Evidence.com.
While this requires a reliable internet connection, Mugford said that using the Axon cameras and uploading videos to their storage system hasn’t been an issue, particularly given the city’s policy of uploading all videos at the end of each shift.
With the logistical obstacles cleared, the question for many departments then becomes whether or not the cost is worth it.
“It’s a really complicated question,” said Malm.
Despite the growing number of studies done into the effectiveness of body-worn cameras, Malm says there haven’t been many that have done a cost-benefit analysis.
In cities like Las Vegas, the cost-benefit of body-worn cameras comes in the form of reduced litigation against the police, says Malm.
But in Nunavut and across Canada, that wouldn’t be the case.
“You don’t have legal suits against the police … that they do down here, so your [financial] benefit is likely to be reduced,” said Malm.
The other challenge around the cost-benefit analysis of the cameras is putting a dollar amount on goals.
“How much value does the department of the community put on increasing trust in police and how do you accomplish that?” asked Malm.
“Is it always worth it? No. Should all departments implement body-worn cameras? No, but you should carefully consider what the issues are and if body-worn cameras could help.”
“How can we trust what’s going on?”
When Qamaniq brought up the topic of body-worn cameras again during the winter sitting of the legislature, Ehaloak advised him that although “the RCMP and the Department of Justice at this time will not be looking at those options,” the Kativik Regional Police Force in Nunavik are doing a pilot project in their territory.
“Once that pilot project’s results are received, we will be looking at their results and the research, and the pilot project itself, and we will be reviewing our [options],” she said.
In May, the KRPF said that the pilot project has seen some success.
KRPF Chief Jean-Pierre Larose reported that the six cameras worn by different officers during the pilot project have recorded video footage from 48 police interventions, with 15 of those videos later used as evidence in criminal files.
Most recently, on June 12, KRPF officers equipped with body-worn cameras arrested an intoxicated man outside the Kuujjuaq hospital for obstruction of a peace officer and for resisting arrest after “he refused to cooperate with the officers’ instructions to leave, and was putting his cell phone near the officer’s face,” said a KRPF news release.
“I’ve viewed the body-camera footage and the actions of the police officer are appropriate and within our policies,” said Capt. Maxime Mercier in the release.
“The recording shows that the individual was waving his camera within inches of the officer’s face, even though the officer repeatedly told the person to stay at a reasonable distance.”
The release also states that the recording of the incident has been submitted as evidence to a Crown attorney.
While this may satisfy one of the KRPF’s goals of the pilot project, providing additional evidence to the court, it may be harmful to others, said Erick Laming, a Shabot Obaadjiwan First Nation Ph.D. candidate in criminology at the University of Toronto.
The other goals of the KRPF body-worn camera pilot project include increasing police accountability, transparency, public trust, confidence and the efficiency of resolution of complaints against police officers while reducing use of force incidents by and against the police.
“Most of the research [on body-worn cameras] suggests that complaints against officers do decrease [when they’re used],” said Laming.
“But there’s a problem with that, because we have no way of knowing if that’s a change in officer behaviour, citizen reporting behaviour, or something else.”
In his experience researching police use of force and oversight, Laming has asked Indigenous community members if they would be willing to file a complaint against the police after body camera implementation. “They said no way.”
While this can’t be generalized, Laming said that part of the reason behind that may be because they’re already targeted to begin with.
“Now if they put in a complaint, everything is going to be captured in the camera. The police have that. It’s a little bit more power. It’s more surveillance for the police. So that person is going to feel even more vulnerable, especially if it comes back and it’s found that the police are investigating,” said Laming.
“So that’s not going to really increase any trust. It actually pushes those people away from reporting.”
Laming also ties this issue to transparency.
“If somebody doesn’t want to make a complaint or they’re fearful or they distrust the system to begin with, and it’s captured on video, are we ever going to know whatever happened if the RCMP don’t release it?” he asked.
The issue also extends to policies governing the use of the cameras and disciplinary actions if those policies aren’t adhered to.
“In Calgary they’ve had cameras for over a year on all officers and we can’t even get access to that policy publicly, we’d have to go through an FOI [freedom of information request],” said Laming.
“So if we don’t even know what the policy says publicly, how can we trust what’s going on?”
The KRPF policy regarding camera use is also not publicly available, though when asked via email, Mercier stated, “police officers wearing the body cameras must record every intervention involving violence, impaired driving and any other extraordinary circumstances. The goal, as the project progresses, is to eventually record every intervention.”
Mercier also noted that “Failing to respect the internal procedure on body cameras can result in disciplinary sanctions going from a warning to a dismissal.”
For both Laming and Malm, community involvement in the creation of body-worn camera policy is critical.
“It can’t be just the police department sitting down and saying this is going to be our body-worn camera policy because the policy deals with a lot of different things: How often is footage going to be reviewed? [H]ow are we going to release it to the public? How are we going to deal with instances of abuse when we see it on camera?” said Malm.
“If you don’t get the perspective and the voice of the community in those policies and if the policies aren’t being enforced, if the department isn’t accountable to those policies, then you’re going to see much less effect on trust and accountability and transparency.”
“Context is everything”
Despite both being police forces in Inuit Nunangat, what works for the KPRF in Nunavik may not work for the Nunavut RCMP, a national police force operating under a 20-year contract in the territory.
“Context is everything. We see such dramatically different [body camera] results in different departments,” said Malm.
“The Arctic is much different than the City of Montreal or the City of Vancouver and those two cities are different from one another as well, and that’s really, really important to keep in mind.”
Despite this, the policy for body-worn cameras for the RCMP will be used across the country.
“It’s something that we have to address on a national level,” said Jones.
With that said, Malm, who began her policing career in Canada before moving to the United States, does see the advantages of a national police force and a national body-worn camera policy.
The United States has 18,000 police departments that are all independent from one another, and there are no national guidelines for these police departments, says Malm.
“I think the RCMP could be a nice uniting force with the understanding that every jurisdiction is going to have its own challenges and should be able to refine that national policy to suit their needs and their problems,” she said.
For Laming, the issue isn’t so much with a national RCMP policy on body-worn cameras, it’s with the inconsistencies within and surrounding the RCMP.
“You have specific communities in Nunavut that are wildly different from a municipality in B.C., where the RCMP [also] deliver policing but they’re run under the territorial and provincial governments so they have to abide by the policies in those jurisdictions. But at the same time, the RCMP has its own legislation and policies, so it could conflict in a lot of ways.”
This is most apparent in police oversight, says Laming.
“If the RCMP shoots and kills somebody in B.C. you have the IIO [Independent Investigations Office of British Columbia] who investigates. If an RCMP officer shoots and kills somebody in Nunavut, another police service investigates,” he said.
“So you have these inequities and that, from my experience and from talking to a lot of residents, doesn’t build trust, if you don’t even have a consistent way of dealing with police abuse or serious major incidents.”
For Laming, this is something that needs to come before the cameras.
“If you implement body cameras without a proper civilian oversight agency, it’s counterproductive because it’s still the police investigating the police when it comes to reviewing the footage,” he said.
Laming also believes that any proper oversight agency needs to consist of members of the community, leaders and Indigenous leaders that investigate all use of force cases from the video evidence, not just those that resulted in injuries or deaths.
“That way we have that independence that can come in and say, ‘Yeah, they were justified or they’re weren’t justified, here’s why and here’s what we would recommend for disciplinary mechanisms,’” said Laming.
“That’s the only way we can really, truly, at least improve accountability.”