Police officers everywhere have no choice but to accept that being videotaped by the public is now part of their jobs, law enforcement experts say.
A video of two Hamilton police officers arresting a suspect and then explaining their actions to an antagonistic group of onlookers has eclipsed a million hits on YouTube in two days — and is proof-positive that policing has to adapt in a digital age, says Henri Berube, the coordinator of the police foundations program at Humber College.
“It’s a good reminder of how the digital age has opened up transparency,” said Berube, a former Peel Regional Police officer. “It’s not unusual for police officers to be taped doing anything.”
In the video, Hamilton police officers Mark Morelli and Chantelle Wilson spend several minutes subduing and arresting a woman who is screaming and calling out about being hurt as they try to handcuff her. Once she's in handcuffs and in the back of their police cruiser, Morelli explains to the crowd exactly what he was doing.
His actions have been largely lauded online as an example of good police work. Berube says he’ll be using the video as an example in police courses at the college.
Many people will now whip out their cameras or phones and film routine traffic stops and the like “just in case something goes down,” Berube says. While some may see that as antagonistic, in the end, it’s a positive for transparency, he adds.
“The more transparency there is and the more the public understands, the better.” Historically, police actions caught on tape have often been shown in a negative light. But increasingly, police forces are considering lapel and dash cameras as a way to protect themselves in court and from allegations of corruption and excessive use of force.
Yatim, Mesic shootings outline the use of cameras for police
Transparency with respect to police has been front of mind for many Canadians in recent months. The family of Steve Mesic, the Hamilton man who was shot and killed by police earlier this year, have constantly raised the question of what would have happened had the officers who shot him been equipped with cameras or if other witnesses had been there.
Norm Dorr, the father of Mesic’s fiancée Sharon, says video cameras would solve the mystery of what happens during police standoffs with civilians. Mesic’s family says they still doesn’t really know what happened to him, Dorr said during a public meeting on Taser use at Hamilton City Hall earlier this week.
With lapel cams, “at least we would know the truth,“ Dorr said. “I’ve said many times, we’ve got three witnesses to the shooting,” he said. “One is dead and the other two are cops.”
Civilian video was also instrumental in the Sammy Yatim shooting case. A Toronto police officer is facing a charge of second-degree murder following the fatal shooting of the 18-year-old on a streetcar in July. Video of the incident has been shared worldwide online.
Being taped is a reality that police officers “had better get used to,” says retired police detective Kevin Bryan, who worked with York Regional Police for 30 years.
“It’s the world we live in now where it’s being used 24/7,” Bryan told CBC Hamilton. “You’d better just assume you’re being taped.”
Playing it up for the camera
But situations can quickly escalate when cameras are involved, Bryan said. “Once that video comes out, things can become antagonistic,” he said. “It becomes much more difficult.”
That’s the case for the video of the two officers subduing the Hamilton suspect, Bryan says. “If not for the camera, that’s a simple arrest,” he said. “She’s playing it up for the camera.”
Hamilton police Chief Glenn De Caire also had some criticism for the person who filmed the incident.
"What is very discouraging is we actually have citizens on scene who think the priority is to get their cellphone out and videotape this when, in fact, they should be coming to the assistance of the officer and helping us to police in our own community," De Caire said.
Officers in Hamilton know that cameras are everywhere, and that they need to be cognizant of that, De Caire says. “Our people are well aware that whatever we do is going to be on tape, it’s going to be on video, it’s going to be recorded,” he said. “And we at the Hamilton Police Service have no concern or complaint about that in any way, shape or form.”
Berube says he was always reassured by the fact that he had a dash camera on his car when he was out on patrol. “It could help that things that were hard to believe in policing were captured on video.” That could come in handy in court, Berube says.
Bryan also has a couple of reminders for anyone who chooses to film police officers at work. One is that anything you film could be needed as evidence in court, which means your phone or camera could end up confiscated in a search warrant.
The other is that police officers may not always be receptive to be filmed, especially on routine traffic stops.
“If you’ve got a camera in my face, you’re more likely to get a ticket than a caution,” he laughed.