Council to vote on body cams for Vancouver police as critics raise concerns about privacy, cost

A member of the Vancouver Police Department wears a chest-mounted GoPro camera as he oversees the takedown of a tent city in downtown Vancouver on Oct. 16, 2014. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press - image credit)
A member of the Vancouver Police Department wears a chest-mounted GoPro camera as he oversees the takedown of a tent city in downtown Vancouver on Oct. 16, 2014. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Vancouver city council is set to vote on a motion to outfit police officers with body cameras by 2025, a move that councillors with the ABC Vancouver party say will fulfil a campaign promise to improve public safety in the city while addressing concerns about transparency and accountability in policing.

The motion brought forward by Coun. Lenny Zhou would direct city staff to research the cost of the project, including the price of body-worn cameras and the data storage required to implement such a policy.

"This is an evidence-based approach. People want evidence-based policymaking, and this is all about the evidence," said Zhou.

"Everyone benefits from this policy."

A 2018 CBC investigation found that B.C. had the highest rate of police-involved deaths per capita in the country. Body-worn cameras have been promoted as a way to decrease police violence and increase transparency in investigations and are supported by families of some who have died as a result of police brutality.

But an emerging body of research on the use of body-worn cameras suggests that while the cameras come at a significant cost, they do not result in significant changes in behaviour among either police officers or the public.

OneCity Coun. Christine Boyle said she won't be voting for the motion — and will call for the city to track the outcomes of the policy, which is expected to pass.

"I can understand the police wanting video from their perspective. Unfortunately, in city after city, we see inconsistency with the footage — if it's being turned on or off or difficulty accessing the footage when it's needed. So there are a lot of challenges in the implementation that hinder it being a useful tool," said Boyle.

"I, of course, want us to be making decisions and investments in solutions that make a difference to improve public safety and transparency. From the large body of research I've read on the subject, this isn't a solution that gets us there."

Cost of proposal unknown

Neither ABC Vancouver's original campaign promise nor the motion set to be voted on has a concrete budget. If passed, city staff would study the cost of the cameras and the data storage system that would be needed.

Toronto police are currently spending $34 million over five years to equip over 2,000 police officers with body cameras. The VPD has over 1,450 front-line officers, according to its union.

Vancouver police have requested an additional $20,000 in next year's police budget to implement a pilot project to study the effectiveness of body-worn cameras.

Zhou said the city could also look at alternative funding options, including asking for support from the province. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth has expressed support for a similar pilot project undertaken by Delta RCMP.

Zhou also said the cameras could eventually be cost-saving measures, citing the legal and administrative costs of investigations.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Vancouver police said in a written statement to CBC that "we've looked at body-worn cameras in the past, but it's always been prohibitive due to the costs of purchasing and maintaining equipment, as well as data storage."

"There are other challenges that need to be addressed, including privacy concerns for people who are recorded but have not committed a crime and the ability of Crown counsel to process and disclose evidence gathered during criminal investigations," the statement reads in part.

The chief director of the Independent Investigations Office of B.C. (IIOBC), the civilian-led agency that investigates police incidents ending in serious injuries or death, has in the past said he believes body cameras should become part of the police uniform, saying the footage would help with investigations.

A report by IIO staff reviewed 71 investigations and found footage from cameras would have potentially helped resolve 93 per cent of those cases.

Pontential 'chilling' effect on political action

Meghan McDermott, the policy director for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said she believes no level of government has properly studied the consequences of deploying technology that films people in public and would be managed by police.

"What's really at stake here is our ability to be free without being recorded by the state. There's a real potential for people's private information to get recorded, to get sucked up into a server somewhere and then have extra technology layered on top of it, for instance, facial recognition technology," said McDermott.

"We also are very concerned about it having a chilling effect on people's willingness to protest or join a protest and what they may be willing to do in public spaces if there's a police officer there."

There are currently few policies in B.C. dictating how the data from body-worn cameras would be stored, though B.C. provincial policing standards stipulate that data should be stored for at least a year if it is not part of an ongoing investigation.

At the moment, they also prohibit the "indiscriminate" use of body-worn cameras on all police calls. Instead, officers have the discretion to switch them on "where violent or aggressive behaviour is anticipated or displayed."

If implemented, it would be the first widespread use of body-worn cameras among front-line officers in B.C.