Body-worn cameras are now rolling out to front-line Toronto police officers — but in many instances, those officers will be allowed to turn them off while on the job.
At a press conference Monday morning, Deputy Chief Shawna Coxon gave an overview of how the cameras will be used. Officers began wearing them at 23 Division last week, and within two weeks, everyone on shift at that location will be using them, Coxon said. It’s expected that by the fall of 2021, over 2,300 Toronto police officers will be wearing a body-worn camera.
“They’re objective. They record what’s going on in the moment from both sides,” she said.
But they won’t always be recording. Coxon gave an overview of several instances in which officers would be permitted to turn their camera off at their own discretion.
Cameras would first be switched on when officers are on the way to a call, she said, but Coxon added there would be “a lot of situations where it is appropriate to turn the camera off.”
That would include situations involving children, victims, when a person isn’t dressed, or with “people who don’t want to be filmed and it might be a sensitive situation,” she said.
“It’s highly contextual. We have to think about what’s happening in that moment, and for those reasons, there are times where an officer can turn the camera off,” Coxon said.
“We know legally when it’s permissible and when it’s not.”
Coxon said if an officer is found to have turned their camera off when they shouldn’t have, it would mean an automatic penalty of one days’ pay as a “minimum standard,” as well as a minimum of two days’ docked pay for supervisors.
The technology also includes an automatic auditing feature that will allow supervisors to go back and see what was going on at the time to discern if turning off the camera “made sense and was appropriate,” she said.
Calls to defund police
Conversations about police reform have been raging in Toronto and across North America in recent months.
Though a constant issue for many communities, those conversations have ramped up in recent months following high-profile deaths involving police, which in the GTA include the shooting death of Ejaz Choudry and the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, who fell from her 24th-floor apartment balcony on May 27 while police were in her home.
Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit cleared five Toronto police officers of any wrongdoing in connection with the case last week, leading Korchinski-Paquet’s sister to say the family is “absolutely disgusted” with the outcome.
Protesters have been pushing for police to be defunded in recent months. A motion calling for the 2021 police budget to be slashed by at least 10 per cent with a reallocation of savings to community services failed at city council back in June.
Instead, council voted in favour of a series of measures including the creation of a non-police response team for mental health calls and a mandate to require all officers to have body-worn cameras by 2021.
Systemic issues remain
Earlier this month, the city’s police services board unanimously passed 81 so-called “sweeping” recommendations aimed at police reform, but critics said those moves still fail to address mounting calls to defund police or to make the force accountable to Black and other communities of colour.
John Sewell, a former Toronto mayor and current coordinator of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition, previously called the recommendation for $35 million for body-worn cameras “a very bad investment.”
Other deputants at the board’s meeting pointed to studies showing body cams are not effective, saying investing in such costly technology with an unproven record of success flies in the face of calls to cut funds to policing.
Erick Laming, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto whose research focuses on police use of force and its impact on Indigenous and Black communities, told CBC News there hasn’t been much research on the subject in Canada.
“Empirically, we just don’t know how effective these devices can be,” he said. “Is it going to stop violence against certain communities? Is it going to stop police from shooting people? Probably not.”
“Time will tell” if body cameras will improve relations with the community, he said.
“We have to keep our expectations kind of humble in that sense.”
Coxon, when discussing body-worn cameras on Monday, said she thinks that any measures that improve accountability are important.
“We have a lot of work to do with respect to systemic issues,” she said. “This is one piece, one measure of accountability of a much broader transformation platform.”