Body Cameras Won’t End Police Brutality In Toronto

Police want to decide when to turn the cameras on.
September 16, 2016, 5:51pm
An officer holding a body-worn camera. Image: Shutterstock

Toronto police are asking for $85 million to give officers body-worn cameras with the pitch that the technology will improve police accountability and transparency, and on Thursday the force released a 95-page report on a recent pilot program to support the bid.

But the report highlights some concerning beliefs held by police: namely, that officers should be able to exercise discretion over when body cameras are turned on and off in the course of their duties.

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"Politicians and our police chief are giving people an easy answer," said Desmond Cole, a Toronto Star columnist who frequently covers policing in Canada and who argued on Twitter that the $85 million would be better spent on improving the enforcement powers of the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), Ontario's police watchdog.

"If the camera doesn't turn on, does it matter if the camera lies or not?"

"They're saying: don't worry, there's just a few tweaks. We have a dazzling new technology that will level the playing field, and will be objective and the camera doesn't lie," Cole continued. "These things are all nonsense. If the camera doesn't turn on, does it matter if the camera lies or not?"

According to the report, body cam-wearing officers' "suggested changes mainly focused on including more discretion in camera use for officers in certain situations," and more clarity around when cameras can be turned off. When staff sergeants were interviewed, the report states, "suggested changes again included more officer discretion in when to turn the cameras on and off."

Read More: The RCMP Still Haven't Been Able to Find a Good Body Camera

Before the pilot, 75 percent of officers wearing body cams said that the technology would lead to them being "over-supervised and under constant scrutiny." That number didn't waver much over the course of the pilot project: by its end, 76 percent of officers were "concerned about the potential for internal review."

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The statistics from the community paint a wildly different picture. Over the course of the year-long pilot project, almost nothing changed: a full half of surveyed community members agreed that police body cams should be on at all times, except for breaks. The surveyed neighbourhoods included the stomping grounds of the Toronto police's notoriously brutal TAVIS unit, which has faced internal calls to be disbanded.

The public has good reason to desire that police should be able to exercise as little discretion as possible when it comes to body cams. On Sunday, police in Washington, DC shot and killed an unarmed black man—31-year-old Terrence Sterling—while their body cameras were turned off. DC police will now have to confirm with a dispatcher that they've turned on their camera whenever they respond to a call. In late July, Chicago officers' body cameras were off while they shot 18-year-old Paul O'Neal—again, unarmed—in the back, killing him.

"We're not confronting the bully's mentality or the lack of consequences for their actions"

When footage of the moments leading up to, and after, O'Neal's shooting were finally released, they appear to show officers warning each other to switch their body-worn cameras off, the Chicago Tribune reported.

In the context of these recent incidents, the Toronto police's transparent desire to give individual officers latitude regarding when their cameras should be on and off is intensely concerning. We've been shown again and again that a shiny new technology, sold on some inherent quality, does not address the root problem of systematically abusive policing.

Body-worn cameras may indeed be one instrument in the toolbox of police accountability, but they do not constitute accountability itself. For that, you need people, not a plastic box of glass and circuitry. The SIU noted in its 2014-2015 annual report that while 266 cases were opened by the unit, charges were laid against just 12 officers. More than half were related to injuries sustained while in police custody.

In 2016, the SIU cleared the officer who shot and killed Andrew Loku, a 45-year-old mentally ill Sudanese immigrant who was holding a hammer at the time of his death, of all wrongdoing. There were surveillance cameras rolling in the location where Loku was shot, but they supposedly malfunctioned at the moment of the killing. The SIU also exonerated one officer who attempted to view and download the surveillance footage.

"Instead of confronting the bully and saying, 'You need to stop hurting people,' we're saying, 'What if we gave you a new tool? Maybe then you'd hurt fewer people," Cole said. "But we're not confronting the bully's mentality or the lack of consequences for their actions."

We don't need history to repeat itself in order to avoid another tragedy in Toronto like those in DC and Chicago. We need to solve the real issue with police brutality: the police themselves. Anything else, however technologically sublime, is a band-aid.