Calgary police say body cameras de-escalate incidents, provide accurate record

The issues of racism and excessive force have many police services considering a body camera program. But Calgary police officers have had them for more than a year and the service is now looking at expanding the program. 

CPS may expand program for front-line officers

A person holds a small black camera.
A Calgary police officer holds up his Axon body-worn camera. There are now about 1,150 body cameras deployed by the Calgary Police Service. (Helen Pike/CBC)

The issues of racism and excessive force have many police services considering body cameras. But in Calgary, police have had them for more than a year now — and in light of recent events, the Calgary Police Service is looking at expanding the program.

"We're not out there to hurt people, we are out there to help people, and we want to capture all those interactions that we have with everyone regardless of what it is," Staff Sgt. Travis Baker told the Calgary Eyeopener on Friday.

Baker is in charge of the body camera project for CPS. He said there are about 1,150 cameras used by front-line patrol officers in the city.

"Pretty much if you run into a uniformed officer on the street, they're going to be wearing a body-worn camera," he said. "It's pretty easy to spot — it's right in the middle of their chest and it usually has a big glowing red light on it when it's recording."

How body cameras have worked for Calgary police

3 years ago
Duration 1:57
While there are growing calls for the RCMP and other police services to start using body cameras, police in Calgary have been using them since last year. The program isn't perfect, but there are clear benefits.

Officers are expected to turn on the camera any time they start an interaction with the public.

"Basically, as soon as they get out of the car. I had one officer tell me that her indicator is when her seatbelt comes off, the camera goes on," Baker said. "So if they conduct a traffic stop, their cameras will be on. If they're not, they'll be facing disciplinary action."

Especially in light of recent events, Baker believes the body cameras have had a positive effect on policing in Calgary.

"I think everybody that's involved is cognizant of the fact that the camera is on and running, whenever there's an encounter with the police," he said. "I think it keeps everybody on an even playing field … the camera's unbiased, it doesn't have an opinion. It just records what happens in front of it." 

Baker said officers are trained to tell people that the camera is on and running.

"I think it changes the behaviour of both the officer and the person they're dealing with, be it victim, witness or accused, because they can see the camera running," he said. "We can get that kind of de-escalation right off the hop. People know it's running so they slow down and start thinking about what they're doing."

The cameras have been in use for 14 months in Calgary. Technical problems with the first round of cameras caused the program to be delayed by a few years. But since getting it up and running, CPS has been approached by police agencies across Canada interested in implementing their own programs, Baker says.

"It does a lot of things. It really is an unbiased and transparent way to capture what the officers do every day, and the interactions that they have," Baker said. 

"It's also a really good evidence gathering tool, especially for on-view incidents ... things like impaired driving. What a wonderful tool that you can show the judge in the court exactly what happened that night and what it looked like for the officer."

Baker said the cameras have proven vital in providing different angles and points of vision on the same incident.

"No matter how articulate you are, how good you are at explaining something, the camera always captures more detail and it captures those details in the background that you might miss or you might not be able to see because you're focused on something else," he said. "And when we get multiple sets of cameras at one incident, we can get a great deal of views from many different angles."

Baker said cellphone camera videos have also become common in police investigations, but those videos are even better when supplemented with police body camera videos.

"As a previous investigator, quite often we would use those videos from cellphones. But the problem is that they're limited to one perspective, and we don't know if they've been altered or edited or they're shortened or what's missing from them," he said.

"We'd like to have that total experience so that we can share it with other investigators or when we send it out [to the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team] we send them every piece of video that we can."

With files from Calgary Eyeopener.