British Columbia

As petitions reignite push for police body cameras, advocates insist money should be spent elsewhere

A petition calling for body cameras to be worn by all RCMP officers in B.C. has drawn more than 20,000 signatures since it launched on May 30. But the B.C. Civil Liberties Assocation says this isn't a helpful response.

BCCLA says body cameras do not address systemic violence or racism in policing

A GoPro camera is seen on the chest of someone wearing a high-visibility vest, with a police officer and a parkgoer in the backgroud.
A member of the Vancouver Police Department wears a chest-mounted GoPro camera as he oversees the dismantling of a tent city in downtown Vancouver in 2014. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

A petition calling for body cameras to be worn by all RCMP officers in B.C. has drawn more than 20,000 signatures in the week since it launched, but advocates say the push is misguided as the technology is not the proper solution for the province's systemic policing problems.

The petition, created by a West Kelowna, B.C., woman, says the cameras are necessary to prevent violent encounters between the public and police and increase officer accountability. A similar petition in Toronto has drawn more than 100,000 signatures.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau added to the push for cameras on Monday, saying he agrees Mounties should add them to uniforms and that he would raise the issue with premiers in a phone call this week.

Harsha Walia, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said body cameras are not where officials should be investing if they want to address cyclical police violence. Walia, who noted B.C. has the highest rate of police-involved deaths per capita in the country, said Monday police cameras do not address or prevent the systemic over-policing faced by Black and Indigenous communities in the province.

"Why would we, as a jurisdiction, put more money into a solution that is ineffective and fundamentally doesn't address the issue of police violence?" Walia said. 

"It's a technological solution to something that has systemic roots ... It's much more of a band-aid-type solution."

Costs, privacy a concern

The RCMP has been hearing the push for body cameras from politicians and community leaders for at least a decade, running a number of limited pilot studies since at least 2010. A full feasibility study in 2015 found several benefits to the cameras, including fewer civilian complaints and changed behaviour from both the public and police officers, but said cost and privacy were key barriers. 

That study recommended "limited permanent implementation" in a single division as the best way to proceed. The following year, the RCMP said technical limitations had delayed rollout and the recommendation has sat on the shelf since.

The B.C. RCMP declined to comment on Trudeau's remarks Monday, deferring to national headquarters.

The Vancouver Police Department has been researching body cameras since at least 2012. A spokesperson said the department has no plans to implement cameras, in part because the technology is "largely cost prohibitive," but also because of other concerns, like accuracy of the video.

'This helps us do our job'

The chief director of the Independent Investigations Office of B.C. (IIOBC), the civilian-led agency that investigates police incidents ending in serious injuries or death, said Monday he believes body cameras should become part of the police uniform.

"I think the time has come now," Chief Civilian Director Ron MacDonald said Monday in an interview.

"This helps us do our job. This is additional evidence that will help us determine what happens when there are interactions between police and the public that lead to serious harm or death," he continued.

"I'm not saying that this is necessarily going to show police doing more wrong — it might actually show police doing more right — but it's a piece of evidence and that's what we're always looking for: as much evidence as we can get."

A 2015-2016 report from the police watchdog took issue with the fact officers do not wear body cameras on a regular basis. The report said IIO staff reviewed 71 investigations and found footage from cameras would have potentially helped resolve 93 per cent of those cases.

Public safety funding reform

Demands for police reform and funding reductions have been heard in rallies across the continent after George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were killed by police in Minneapolis, Min. and Louisville, Ken. The death of Chantel Moore, 26, who was shot five times after police in New Brunswick were called for a wellness check, has prompted similar calls for change.

Dozens of people hold up signs reading 'Defund the VPD' and 'All Black Lives Matter', among other signs, at a giant rally.
Protest signs at an anti-Black racism rally in downtown Vancouver call for the defunding of the Vancouver Police Department. The protests were sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis. A majority of the members of the Minneapolis City Council said Sunday they support disbanding the city's police department. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Walia said when police are responding to things that are not their mandate — like wellness checks, concerns around mental health, or someone showing symptoms of an overdose — it's worth questioning whether money for policing would be better directed to community-based supports like comprehensive mental health intervention, harm reduction services, housing initiatives and conflict resolution services.

"We really need to be thinking about solutions that minimize the scope and scale of policing," Walia said.

Tom Stamatakis, president of the Canadian Police Association, says there are some unrealistic expectations around body cameras and what they can provide. 

"It's another tool that provides some information, but it doesn't mean you're still not going to have to conduct a proper and thorough incident every time something occurs," Stamatakis told CBC News.

Vancouver city council and the Vancouver Police Department are currently at odds over the department's funding. Vancouver police has a budget of $315 million this year, 21 per cent of the city's overall budget. The city would like to cut that budget by one per cent.

B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said in a statement Monday the province "welcomes discussions with our federal and local partners on tools to enhance police accountability — including the use of body cameras."

With files from Yvette Brend, John Last and CBC's On The Coast