Local police to test body-worn cameras

Local police will start using body-worn video cameras this spring as part of a year-long pilot project.

About 20 officers in 55 Division’s primary response unit will start training with the cameras in January before using them for actual investigations in April or May.

Speaking at a public meeting last week, Staff-Sergeant Michael Barsky, the project lead, said the hope is that body-worn cameras will improve how police and the public behave toward each other, and provide better evidence to the courts.

Barsky stressed it is “truly a pilot,” noting that no money has been set aside yet to equip the whole force. “If this is the right thing for the right reasons, we will recommend the City of Toronto find capital in the budget for it,” said Barsky.

“But if it’s not, I assure you I’m not going to put pen to paper and endorse something that’s not good for the citizens of Toronto and the Toronto Police Service.”

At the meeting, city councillor Paula Fletcher and members of the local police-community liaison committee asked several questions about privacy concerns.

Like the cameras installed two years ago in all Toronto’s marked police vehicles, Barsky said police will only switch on the body-worn cameras during an active investigation.

“It’s not to be used for surveillance,” he said. “It’s overt, not covert. You’re never going to endorse our officers just walking through a community and pushing ‘record’.”

Whether answering a call about a break-and-enter or investigating someone tinkering with a bicycle, Barsky said the officers will notify any potential witness or suspect they are being recorded.

The officers will also have a video-camera symbol on their uniform, and two of the three camera types being tested in the pilot have a light that flashes when recording. The other has an outward-facing video screen to show what the camera sees.

Besides an on/off switch, each camera has a mute button, intended to allow at-risk witnesses to speak to police on camera while shielding their identity.

Asked about bystanders and children who walk into view, Barsky said once an officer files video to a central server, police in the Video Services unit will blur them out in a review copy and store the original for the courts.

All the video files are encrypted, and before any court proceedings they can only be accessed by the officer who made them, or a commanding officer. The subjects in a video can also make a Freedom of Information request to see it.

Barsky said storing and managing the videos could cost an estimated $30 to $60 million per year, if the entire Toronto police force adopts body-worn cameras.

“It’s a lot of money,” Barsky said. “But if it saves lives, protects the interest of the public, and does all the right things for the right reasons, I think we’d be silly not to.”

Barsky noted that body-worn cameras were first recommended in a 2012 report on police and community engagement, and again in retired Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci’s report on how police deal with people in a mental crisis – a report sparked by the shooting death of teenager Sammy Yatim by a constable now charged with second-degree murder.

After a recent pilot project in Rialto, California, researchers found public complaints against police officers wearing body-worn cameras fell 88 per cent, while the use of force by officers wearing the cameras fell nearly 60 per cent. Similar pilots have been done or are planned in Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, Montreal and Victoria.

The Toronto Police Service is inviting the public to share their views on the pilot project by answering an online survey. Respondents can fill out the questions anonymously.

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