The South Simcoe Police Service hasn’t yet brought forward a request for body-worn cameras, better known as “body cams” – but at the Wednesday morning meeting of the Bradford West Gwillimbury-Innisfil Police Services Board, Deputy Chief John Van Dyke provided background for what could be a future budgetary request.
Although “not an expert,” Van Dyke provided an overview of the increasing use of body-worn cameras in policing, “and some of the things we need to consider, if and when…”
The use of body-worn cameras by police was pioneered in 2005 in the U.K., which Van Dyke described as “one of the world leaders when it comes to use of technology in policing.”
The cameras became “a hot button issue” in the U.S. in 2014, after a series of deadly interactions between racialized citizens and police.
“Currently, they are widely used in the U.K., Australia and U.S. police services,” Van Dyke said; in the U.K., the cameras paid for by the national government.
That is not the case in Canada, where municipal police forces are funded primarily through local taxes – and it is primarily cost that is a barrier to their use.
Toronto Police Service carried out a body cam pilot project in 2014-2016 but shelved the report due to the cost of implementation – at the time, about $56 million over four years.
When the project was revived in 2020, after the George Floyd murder in the U.S. and defunding police movements here and abroad, the cost had decreased substantially, to $34 million.
The deputy chief showed a clip of footage taken by a U.S. officer’s body cam, that captured events leading up to the fatal shooting of a suspect, as an example of “how a picture provides a thousand words.”
The video showed clearly the aggressive actions of the armed suspect, although it also shows police actions that would not be acceptable in Canada – where training would require the lone officer to clearly identify himself as police, wait for back-up, and consider alternative weapons, such as tasers.
“We would approach this much differently, but the picture tells the story,” the deputy chief said. “It clearly shows (the suspect) has something in his hand. You can see he lunges toward the officer. The officer warns him repeatedly… A picture does tell one thousand words.”
South Simcoe Police conducted a survey of Ontario municipal police services, regarding body-worn cameras. Twenty-six of 44 municipal services responded.
Six are already using or implementing body cams for their frontline officers; another six were either conducting a pilot project or in the process of implementing a pilot, and six more were considering usage, but not moving forward at this time.
Eight said they were not considering body cams, for reasons that included high cost, lack of expertise, or lack of demand in their community.
Van Dyke told the Board that the body cameras can provide “accurate and improved quality of evidence collection, for investigative, judicial and oversight processes.”
The cameras can also be “a major transparency piece,” building community trust and ensuring enhanced accountability for both the police service and the public.
“Both police officers and citizens behave better when they know they are on camera,” the deputy chief noted.
And as was seen in the video clip, footage can also provide valuable information on service procedures and training.
On the negative side, unless the technology includes integration with other technologies – for example, automatically turning on when tasers are deployed – there may be gaps, “because sometimes in the heat of the moment, officers can forget” to turn on the cameras.
Forgetting can have consequences. “Once you go down this road, there will be no coming back,” Van Dyke warned; it raises a certain level of expectation in the community – expectations that the police might not be able to meet.
Police Chief Andrew Fletcher noted that in Canada, “the transparency is a little different here.” If the SIU is called in to investigate a violent interaction between police and an individual, they will “lockdown” the video, which then cannot be released to the public.
Van Dyke identified issues of privacy, surrounding footage and disclosure – currently dealt with by redacting the footage to eliminate uninvolved individuals.
Other issues include possible misuse of the cameras, potential limitations on discretionary actions by officers – there is pressure to go by the book, because “Big Brother is watching, a little bit,” said Van Dyke – and a necessarily incomplete record.
“Recordings do not always provide context,” of what led up to the interaction, he noted. The body cam only “provides a snapshot in time.”
Finally, there is cost.
Although the price has come down, now that the technology is in wider use, “It is still very expensive,” he said – and by authorizing a single vendor, AXON, the province has created a monopoly which could lead to higher costs down the road.
An even bigger expense may be the need for dedicated support staff, to review and transcribe the footage, and manage the records. “It will require staffing, and there will be a cost for that,” Van Dyke said.
Police Services can sign a contract with AXON for a period of one to 10 years; the average contract length of participating police services is 60 months.
Van Dyke recommended conducting a pilot project, before considering a contract, to test the technology and determine what works best for the service. AXON will support a 90-day pilot project at no cost to the service.
He also strongly recommended that, before embarking on a pilot, the service conduct surveys of both the public and its own officers, to gauge support and identify concerns. A survey carried out after the pilot was completed would provide additional data.
“I really support us going out to the public,” prior to undertaking a pilot project, said Innisfil Mayor Lynn Dollin, urging the service to provide details of the cost at that time. “It might make people think differently.”
Chief Fletcher noted that even when costs are known, there has been support for the technology, both by the public and police.
If the Service did sign a five-year contract with AXON, it would likely ask for an ‘unlimited package’ – with a five-year warranty, and the “auto-tagging” technology that automatically links officers with their own video footage, eliminating the need to spend hours reviewing the data at the station. “We make sure this is an efficient project, and not something that adds more work,” Van Dyke said.
The package must also provide “unlimited data storage”, for the “massive amounts of data” collected, he said, noting, “Some is completely irrelevant and can be deleted after a year. Some is stored indefinitely,” such as unsolved homicides.
The projected cost for a five-year contract is $833,935, or $147,599 annually – partially offset by the $35,000 per year that South Simcoe Police are already spending with AXON, for DEMS technology that allows police to download citizen videos, and share video evidence with the courts.
That would mean $113,000 in new costs per year – exclusive of the back-end support needed of “maybe one full-time, one part-time position – but that’s just a guess,” the deputy chief said.
Asked for a more accurate assessment of staffing costs by PSB chair Chris Gariepy, Van Dyke noted that was some of the information that a pilot project could provide.
Member Todd Canning wanted to know if the Service was committed to implementing body-worn cameras if it undertook a pilot project.
No, said Van Dyke. “You run a pilot, and that’s the end of it.”
There was no formal request for consideration of body-worn cameras or a pilot project, but Chief Fletcher noted the Service could be back asking for permission to run a pilot “sometime in 2022,” and possible consideration in the 2023 budget.
If it does decide to move forward, said Van Dyke, there is one more question: “If we do decide to go down that road, the Board will need to decide how we will pay for it – out of our operating or capital budget?"