PASSIFIUME: No easy roll-out for police body cameras

A Toronto police officer models a body-worn camera sample in May, 2015.Ernest Doroszuk / Toronto Sun

With police use-of-force policies at the forefront of national debate, Toronto Mayor John Tory earlier this month promised to fast-track plans to equip city officers with body-worn cameras (BWC.)

But as I found out during my years covering cops and crime in Calgary, it’s no easy road for any police department.

Calgary, which launched their BWC trials in 2012 — two years before Toronto —  became Canada’s first police service in April 2019 to fully equip its front-line officers with 1,150 of the units.

While the program has every indication of being a great success, it came close to being derailed numerous times thanks to technical issues, vendor problems and even lawsuits.

“There’s a significant amount of policy that goes into them,” said John Orr, a 20-year veteran of the Calgary Police Service and current president of the city’s police association.

“There was significant planning ahead of the roll out.”

Calgary Police Service Staff Sgt. Travis Baker wears and holds the service’s new Axon body camera on July 3, 2018. Gavin Young / Calgary Sun/Postmedia Network

Canada’s third-largest police service, Calgary police’s BWC program suffered from a number of stutter-starts.

Put to tender in 2014, the first program settled on purchasing over a thousand units that combined chest-mounted cameras with speaker-mics for their Motorola two-way radios — promising a service-wide roll-out by 2017.

That $1.3-million program was scrapped in 2016, citing officer-safety concerns after the units were found to cause officers’ radios to randomly key up and continuously transmit.

This crippled the city’s police communications system — not to mention often amusing moments listening to our police-issue media radios in the newsroom as conversations ranging from last night’s American Idol results to kvetching about paperwork were unknowingly broadcast across the city.

It also led to a $586,000 statement of claim filed by the city against the vendor.

Four years after the launch of the program, CPS was forced to start from scratch — issuing a second RFP in 2017.

This caused a lot of frustration among CPS members I spoke to — including Les Kaminski, who was president of the Calgary Police Association at the time.

Sergeant Les Kaminski, former president of the Calgary Police Association

“Statistics clearly show that in all jurisdictions that have deployed this tool, the incidence of complaints against officers drops dramatically,” Kaminski told me in 2018, adding that that criminal prosecutions against camera-wearing officers often see similar drops.

“These cameras will provide another perspective and provide answers to questions which may arise during the course of our duties — we have been waiting for this tool for a very long time, and look forward to finally getting them.”

The cameras are an impartial witness to interactions between police and the public, able to offer far more context than statements by heartbroken family members or smartphone recordings that begin long after the start of an encounter.

“Only bad cops don’t want body cameras,” a good cop told me once.

Today, BWCs are so well-received by Calgary’s front-line officers that shortages caused by COVID-19 patrol redeployments have caused anxiety to those forced to work without one.

“I don’t feel safe, I don’t feel comfortable out there,” one Calgary said last week, describing BWCs as an indispensable tool — not only to protect citizens but also officers from unfounded or malicious abuse complaints.

The cameras are so relied upon in Calgary that those who don’t have them still get repeated requests for footage when use-of-force reports are submitted.

“I can already start to feel the pressure — this is the piece of evidence they want, regardless of what your notes say,” another CPS member told me.

“If you don’t have a bodycam to back you up, then you’re somehow being deceptive.”

Here in Toronto, Toronto Police Association President Mike McCormack echoed the sentiments of his counterparts in Calgary — fewer are more eager to see the rollout of BWCs than cops themselves.

“When we piloted it across the city, our members were overwhelmingly in support of body worn cameras,” he told me.

“What we found is that during that pilot project, there were 23 complaints about police officers and in those 23 incidents, the data captured on the body worn cameras, vindicated the police officers.”

The policies and procedures for BWCs are in place, McCormack said — now’s the time to finally get the project off the ground.

“We’re ready to roll whenever the Police Services Board is ready to implement that program,” he said.