Nunavut RCMP body camera discussions should involve public, says expert
“A lot of these decisions are always made behind closed doors”
Support for the deployment of body-worn cameras in Nunavut was bolstered last month when Nunavut Senator Dennis Patterson convened a roundtable meeting on June 19 to discuss the issue with more than 30 others.
Among those in attendance were representatives of both the federal and territorial governments, Inuit organizations, Nunavut’s RCMP Chief Superintendent Amanda Jones and numerous other RCMP and regional police representatives.
“We sort of had everybody there who counts, you know, every key stakeholder,” said Patterson.
But the meeting was not open to the public.
For Erick Laming, a Shabot Obaadjiwan First Nation PhD candidate in criminology at the University of Toronto who focuses on police accountability, this is troubling.
“Why wouldn’t the public be privy to what’s going on?,” asked Laming.
“A lot of these decisions are always made behind closed doors, without debate from the public or public input and that’s what you need. You need the public to be part of that process. because at the end of the day, that’s who you’re serving and that’s who you essentially want to build those relationships back with. If you keep them out … of the decision-making, then where’s that leaving us with transparency and accountability?”
When asked why the meeting wasn’t open to the public, Patterson first noted that in part it was because the meeting took place on Zoom. “It’s not really a public forum,” he said.
As well, Patterson said, “We decided to set it up on a not-for-attribution basis just to encourage people to be candid.”
After the meeting, a summary was prepared and released that reflected what everyone had said.
According to that summary, one of the areas of agreement was the idea that the use of body-worn cameras in Nunavut would be an important first step to rebuilding trust between the RCMP and Nunavummiut, particularly Inuit residents.
For experts like Laming and Aili Malm, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at California State University, Long Beach, this too is problematic.
“No piece of technology is going to solve deep-seated trust issues in a community with the police,” said Malm.
“That being said, it can be an important piece of the puzzle, if implemented correctly.”
Both Laming and Malm said that the effectiveness of RCMP body cameras will depend on clear goals and policies.
Although the meeting was closed to the public, Laming says that the questions and the issues brought up in the summary document are extremely relevant.
The problem for Laming is the lack of transparency in the reference materials provided: a study of the deployment of body-worn cameras in Australia and several RCMP reports.
“The issue with that I struggle with is that a lot of these studies are always done internally,” said Laming.
“We don’t really have that independent or scientific research that goes into a rigorous experimental study, right? So that’s where we’re limited and that’s where we’re lacking with a lot of that evidence in Canada.”
Because of this, Laming says that police services are likely to claim that the cameras are beneficial.
“It’s a tool for them. It’s kind of a security blanket because it always goes back to, ‘well, we can go back and look at the evidence and say that the police officer acted justifiably in these situations,’” said Laming.
While Laming understands that part of the benefit of the cameras is officer safety, he also questions how much of the anecdotal evidence in support of the cameras comes from community members as opposed to police forces.
Nearly half of the roundtable attendees had ties to law enforcement, including the three senators present aside from Patterson.
Vern White, a senator from Ontario, is a former chief superintendent of the RCMP in Nunavut; Beverley Busson, a senator for British Columbia, is the former commissioner of the RCMP; and Gwen Boniface, another Ontario senator, was the former commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police.
One of the case studies included in the roundtable summary was from the Kativik Regional Police Force, who announced in May that their body-worn camera pilot project has seen some success.
“The project has been well-received by the population and our police as well,” reported KRPF Chief Jean-Pierre Larose.
For Laming, the question then becomes: how is the community perception of the cameras measured? If rebuilding trust is the goal, how is that quantified or qualified?
For Patterson, a reduction in the number of complaints against the RCMP is a start. The senator would also hope to eventually see fewer RCMP standoffs in Nunavut.
For Laming, measuring trust could be done quantifiably through a survey, though he admits response rates are typically low, or through qualitative research such as anonymous interviews with people from the community.
Laming also said police services need to ditch time constraints on public feedback. “Have ongoing communication available so they can put their input in.”
The other question police services should be asking themselves is how they’re approaching the community, said Laming.
“What’s the representation? What are the demographics? How often are you going into those communities? You know, are you knocking on doors? Are you calling them? Are you engaging with them through social media or other online avenues.… If you exhaust all of those avenues, you’re doing a decent job at trying to engage the community.”
While the deployment of the cameras will take time, there is also no concrete timeline for a civilian police oversight agency in Nunavut.
Laming is concerned that the sequence of events may not be correct, that reform to police oversight needs to come first.
“You’re going to still have police use-of-force incidents regardless if cameras are there or not,” said Laming.
“So if you have the oversight agency coming before, at least you can start on fresh ground.”
The concern isn’t shared by Patterson.
“Even if we have body cams in place and we haven’t yet done the new review process, which will take legislation, I believe we’ll still have a much higher level of accountability,” he said.
A recent KRPF release indicated that following an interaction between officers and an intoxicated man in Kuujjuaq, the body-cam footage was reviewed internally by the KRPF and the actions of officers were found to be appropriate and consistent with their policies.
This doesn’t improve accountability, says Laming.
“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.
While Laming isn’t sure of how the logistics of an outside oversight agency would work, he is sure that the community needs to be involved.
“That’s the only way we can really, truly, at least improve accountability.”
Community involvement is a part of the process, just not yet, said Patterson.
“The public role [in the process] will come, but closer to when we’re ready to actually start implementing,” he said.
One of the main concerns to come out of the roundtable meeting was how the deployment of the cameras would be funded.
That changed on June 25 when Bill Blair, the minister of public safety and emergency preparedness, committed to supporting the funding of body cameras in Nunavut during a Senate committee of the whole meeting about the Government of Canada’s role in ending systemic racism.
For Patterson, the next step now is a question of logistics.
“Now that we have a signal that the feds are going to fund a program and contribute significantly to the costs, the real test is going to be to get the procurement machinery in the RCMP moving.”