A Vancouver municipal party wants to outfit cops with body cams. An advocate is skeptical

·3 min read
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 in 2014 during a pilot of the technology.  (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 in 2014 during a pilot of the technology. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press - image credit)

A civil rights advocate says a promise from a municipal party to equip Vancouver police officers with body cams isn't backed up by data, even as its proponents say it would cut down on legal costs.

The proposal, revealed last week, is part of the election platform of A Better City (ABC), which is running a full slate of candidates for Vancouver council, park board, and school board in this fall's municipal elections.

Three former independent councillors, formerly with the Non-Partisan Association, joined the newly formed party in April. Its mayoral candidate Ken Sim said in a statement that body-worn cameras (BWCs) "will help improve transparency and accountability while protecting the safety of front-line police officers."

The technology has been touted in the past as a way to decrease police violence by its effect on officer behaviour. Sim also said it would improve transparency in investigations.

Brian Montague, a council candidate with ABC and a former spokesperson for the Vancouver Police Department, said it has to do with public safety.

"Body-worn cameras are not just to hold police accountable, but also hold the public accountable," he told CBC News. "The public will behave better when they know they're being recorded."

No costs provided

ABC's proposal doesn't contain many details on how the policy would roll out beyond a promise to submit a proposal to the Vancouver Police Board — which signs off on funding for the force. Montague did not provide a cost estimate when asked by CBC News.

"I know cost estimates have been done. I haven't seen a recent cost estimate," he said. "This is something that Vancouver itself simply can't jump into.

"Costs have to be shared with other municipalities, and the provincial government has to get on board … there's a huge amount of details that need to go into policy and procedure."

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

"We remain open to discussion [around body cameras]. However, the biggest hurdle continues to be the extraordinary costs associated with the technology," said VPD Const. Tania Visintin in a statement.

"Body-worn cameras require significant capital and infrastructure investments to allow for data storage, maintenance, and equipment."

Renee Filippone/CBC
Renee Filippone/CBC

The VPD did not provide a cost estimate for the technology when requested by CBC News.

However, for comparison purposes, Toronto police are 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.

Research shows mixed effectiveness

Meghan McDermott, the policy director for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, called the proposal "absurd and bizarre."

"It's an offensive suggestion … just because, you know, it's not based on any evidence," she said. "We should only invest in stuff [where] there's evidence that it's going to be good for us as a society."

Research on the use of body-worn cameras suggests they do not result in a significant difference in behaviour — among either police officers or the public.

McDermott also says there are huge privacy concerns with the technology.

"The ethos with which ABC is suggesting this seems like they want to provide more money and more jobs for police … more ability to collect information about us without any kind of proper oversight mechanisms," she said.

"I would just see this as just another gross violation of the public's rights."

There are currently very few policies in B.C. dictating how the data from BWCs would be stored.

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 BWCs on all police calls. Instead, officers have the discretion to switch them on "where violent or aggressive behaviour is anticipated or displayed."

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC