New Brunswick·CBC Investigates

Video of fatal police shooting should be made public, commissioner says

New Brunswick's access to information and privacy commissioner has called for the release of a body camera tape that shows a fatal police shooting in Rothesay.

Public interest trumps privacy, Anne Bertrand says in calling for release of video from Rothesay shooting

Access to information and privacy commissioner Anne Bertrand has called for the release of footage showing a fatal police shooting in Rothesay. (CBC)

New Brunswick's access to information and privacy commissioner has called for the release of a body camera tape that shows a fatal police shooting in Rothesay.

The decision comes after a 15-month access to information battle by CBC News. 

In her ruling, Anne Bertrand had to determine who should be allowed to see footage collected from body cameras worn by police.

She decided that public interest trumps privacy in this case.

William David McCaffrey was shot and killed by an officer with the Kennebecasis Regional Police Force at his family's home in Rothesay on Feb. 28, 2014.

Releasing the videotape, Bertrand wrote, is the "right thing to do" for the public to understand the decision to use fatal force.

"In special circumstances, there may be a public interest in the public knowing about what happened, despite there being personal information involved," Bertrand said in an interview.

The police force isn't required to follow Bertrand's decision and will be getting legal advice.

'Important for the public to know'

A police officer shot a man outside this home in Rothesay in 2014. (Neville Crabbe/CBC)

When police arrived at his parents' house, the 26-year-old McCaffrey was having a mental health emergency.

According to a description of the tape, police tried to reason with him.

When he began to injure himself, an officer tried to use a Taser on him, but it didn't make contact with his skin.

McCaffrey then lunged at officers with knives in his hands.

"Fearing for safety, one police officer discharged his firearm twice," Bertrand wrote in her report.

McCaffrey did not survive.

RCMP investigated the shooting and determined the officer used reasonable force.

Even so, police should release the tape to let the public decide if the officer acted appropriately, according to Michael Boudreau, a criminology professor at St. Thomas University in Fredericton.

"That's something important for the public to know, because anyone can be involved in an incident that can escalate rather quickly," Boudreau said.

Case may set precedent

The Kennebecasis Regional Police Force initially denied a request to information for footage from a body camera, citing privacy concerns. (Kennebecasis Regional Police Force)
He said it's especially important to see the tape to understand how police deal with someone who is mentally ill.

"I think this is a very important decision on a go-forward basis for police forces across the country," Boudreau said.

While body camera footage has been released to the public in the United States, Bertrand couldn't find a single case in Canada.

She wrote the report with the idea it could be used by other police forces in the country as an example to follow.

Police cited family's privacy

CBC News first asked the Kennebecasis police to release the tape through an access to information request in April 2016.

The force denied the request, citing privacy concerns.

"We would like to protect the privacy of the family involved," Chief Steve Palmer said in an interview.

"It's obviously a very traumatic time for them and we certainly don't want to force them to re-live it."

CBC News appealed the decision to Bertrand, arguing that body-worn camera footage should be treated the same as any other record that details how police make a decision.

Having access to those records is necessary to ensure public safety and accountability, CBC News wrote.

Bertrand spent months reviewing the case and the "difficult questions" it poses about who should be able to access the footage.

In calling for the release of the tape, Bertrand invoked a rarely used public interest section of the Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

In cases where there's "a risk of significant harm," such as a danger to public safety, the section can override other parts of the law that protect privacy.

Chief gets legal advice

Bertrand said she believes most people will see the public interest in releasing the tape.

"Some others will say that's insensitive, it [borders] on making it very hard for the family who went through that, and how dare the commissioner go in this direction," Bertrand said in an interview.

"That's OK too. We need to have opinions and arguments on both sides."

Palmer, the police chief, said he believes some people will find it unnecessary to publicize the tape. Others will see it as way to make sure police are behaving appropriately, he said.

Steve Palmer, Kennebecasis Regional Police Force chief, is getting legal advice about whether to follow the access to information commissioner's decision. (Kennebecasis Regional Police Force)
"There are clearly two sides to that story," he said.

The commissioner doesn't have the power to order the police force to follow her recommendation.

"It seems pretty clear, but I have 15 days to respond," Palmer said.

"I would like to take that time to study it further and get a legal opinion as to where we can go from here."

McCaffrey's family declined an interview request, asking for their privacy to be respected.


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