Police release internal policy on body cameras as program begins wider rollout across Toronto

·3 min read

The Toronto Police Service on Friday released its internal guidelines on the use of body-worn cameras to the public, citing a desire to increase transparency and accountability as the program expands across the city.

"We are proud to be the first service in Canada to release our internal BWC (body-worn camera) procedure in our continued effort to foster public trust around the use of BWCs," said Chief James Ramer in a statement.

"These cameras are valuable tools that support and reinforce our commitment to delivering accountable and transparent police services."

The guidelines dictate how and when officers will use the cameras, though the rules include numerous exceptions and circumstances.

The document also lays out how the recordings can be used, including situations when the footage will be turned over to police oversight agencies and, in select cases, released to the general public.

You can see the full guidelines here.

Erick Laming, a University of Toronto PhD student who studies police use-of-force and accountability, said the guidelines are clearer and more comprehensive than policies released by other police forces using cameras, primarily in the U.S.

"I commend the police, and the policy creators, on a job well done in terms of making it easy for everyone to consume," Laming said, though he noted that other services in Canada have released their guidelines before Toronto police.

Body-worn cameras are being used by some 607 Toronto police officers, concentrated in three of the service's western-most divisions in Etobicoke and northeast Toronto.

The use of body-worn cameras, which started in August 2020, is expanding into four additional divisions this week.

Toronto police expect to have 2,350 officers using the cameras by October 2021. The service employs approximately 5,500 officers.

Officers to decide when cameras are activated

Police officers are ordered to activate the cameras only in instances of enforcement or investigation. According to the document, "they are not intended for 24-hour recording."

Experts say those rules mean officers will have some discretion to decide when the cameras are activated.

"We understand what the goals and objectives are, but do the police on the ground, the gangs and guns personnel, understand that? And will they use it in good faith?" said Louis March, founder of the Zero Gun Violence Movement and a longtime advocate for community safety.

CBC
CBC

Other concerns centre on how footage will be used, especially during investigations into police behaviour.

Laming said that in instances where police are involved in a death or serious injury, any existing body camera footage will likely not be released to the public "for a very long time, if ever." Body camera footage is often released more quickly in the U.S. due to more lenient laws.

However, the guidelines say that in certain cases where "compelling public interest" exists, Toronto's police chief can release footage to the public. Examples include instances of alleged misconduct or excessive use of force by an officer.

"What does that mean? What does it look like when it happens? How often are they going to release that type of footage?" Laming said. "We just don't know what it's going to look like."

March said the policies will likely need to be fine-tuned as more officers begin using the technology in the coming months.

"We should try it, but we should not be afraid to review and fine tune and fix if we find that it's not working in the way it's been designed," March said.