On December 1, the Ottawa Police Service announced in a news release that it had cleared an RCMP officer in Nunavut of violently striking an Inuk man with the door of his moving vehicle.
Public awareness of the disturbing encounter emerged from a bystander video shared on social media which prompted a public outcry and subsequent investigation into the officer’s conduct. On the same day, Minister of Public Safety Bill Blair shared a link on Twitter directing followers to the RCMP’s statement on the rollout of police body-worn cameras in Iqaluit.
On Twitter, Blair asserted that “transparency and accountability are critical for public trust,” continuing, “This important [National Body-Worn Camera Program for front-line RCMP officers] will help rebuild and strengthen the trust between the RCMP and our communities.”
Blair is correct that transparency and accountability are critical. However, his assumption that police body-worn cameras will somehow just improve public trust is wishful thinking as the findings in the research literature on body-worn camera efficacy is inconclusive at this point.
Many public claims about body-worn cameras are merely based on beliefs and assumptions about human behaviour. The belief is that if cameras are present, officers are less likely to engage in misconduct and citizens are more likely to comply with officer commands.
A person who is intoxicated or experiencing a mental health crisis cannot necessarily be expected to be thinking clearly or rationally during an encounter with a police officer. Further, let us not forget that the officer who murdered George Floyd was wearing a body camera (as were the other officers on scene). The officer was also fully aware he was being recorded by bystanders during the eight minutes and 46 seconds that it took to slowly and horrifically take Mr. Floyd’s life.
There is no evidence in Canada that the use of body-worn cameras improves transparency, and currently little available evidence on the general efficacy of police body cameras. There also remains no shared consensus between the public, politicians and police management about what is meant exactly by “transparency” (i.e., when, how or if footage will be shared publicly). When used in the context of body cameras, transparency is just another silly buzzword.
The release of body camera footage has also been at best inconsistent. Sometimes the public is privy to video, and other times police will withhold footage even to those who have filed formal complaints against officers with police management, citing policy, legal and privacy issues.
The link shared on Twitter by Blair directs to an RCMP webpage that provides some basic information about the police use of body-worn cameras in Iqaluit, with an alarming caveat. An officer “may also turn the camera on when they interact with the public, but not in every situation.”
Individual police discretion to turn the camera on and off fully invalidates any credible discussions of accountability. How exactly the public can hold an officer accountable for a complaint of misconduct if the officer is able to switch off the camera remains unclear. This is upsetting given that this “accountability” measure comes with a $238-million price tag.
Police discretion remains largely uncontrolled and, like transparency, there remains no political consensus regarding how (or if) discretion should or could be managed. Even more concerning, consider that the highest levels of discretion are exhibited by front-line officers who are often the least experienced and trained. These very same officers are to consider the “right to privacy versus the nature of the call” in their own determination of whether to turn the camera on.
Given these matters, any further expenditures on police body-worn cameras should cease until the public has clear information on how the cameras will definitively contribute to transparency and accountability. Community-driven policies and directives would be a very good place to start.
Christopher J. Schneider is professor of sociology at Brandon University and author of Policing and Social Media: Social Control in an Era of New Media.