North·In Depth

Could body cameras be coming to some RCMP detachments? It's complicated

Calls for RCMP officers to be equipped with police body cameras are getting louder — but Canada has been here before.

RCMP internal report recommended body cameras be introduced 5 years ago, but change is slow in coming

An NYPD officer demonstrates how to use and operate a body camera in this file photo from 2014. Though body cameras have been deployed widely across U.S. police departments, their counterparts in Canada have been slow to introduce the technology. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

On May 5, a 31-year-old man in Clyde River, Nunavut, was killed in an altercation with an RCMP officer.

In the characteristically cryptic language of a police media release, RCMP described it as a "use-of-force situation" and provided few other details. The results of an external investigation by the Ottawa Police Service, typical after serious incidents like this one, won't be known for a while.

But the incident, the latest of a record number of armed confrontations with police in the territory this year, has had impacts beyond the remote community of 1,000 residents.

Amid a growing national conversation on police accountability, the shooting has inspired calls from the territory's MLAs, MP and senator for the introduction of body-worn cameras to RCMP detachments in the territory.

"There's been too many deaths of Nunavummiut when police get calls from community members," said David Qamaniq, the MLA for Tununiq who has led the call for the introduction of police body cameras in Nunavut. His own son died at the hands of an RCMP officer in what was later ruled to be a homicide and spurred his entry to territorial politics. "If they do have these cameras in place … they can review these clips to see if the person is actually telling the truth."

"It can at least open up the conversation around, what are the processes and procedures happening right now?" said Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, the MP for Nunavut who has in Ottawa taken up Qamaniq's call for cameras. "Definitely, it's at the very least a conversation starter."

Long discussed, never deployed

But in the opinion of many policing experts, that conversation has been underway for far too long already.

"The officers want these, the public … wants these, everybody wants these," said Greg Brown, a 35-year police veteran who now researches policing at Carleton University and the Osgoode Hall Law School. "So why they're not being introduced more widely in Canada is a mystery to me."

Advocates say cameras improve the tone of interactions between officers and the public and provide a valuable piece of evidence for prosecutions — and not just for citizens pursuing complaints against police.

Why they're not being introduced more widely in Canada is a mystery to me.- Greg Brown, researcher and former police chief

"There's a real difference in the attitude of the aggressive individual when they realize they're on tape," said Vernon White, a senator and former assistant commissioner for the RCMP with 12 years experience working in Arctic communities.

"Most police officers that talk about body-worn video talk about, 'My God, I wish I had that when I arrested so-and-so, because … I could've shown a judge the way he went on compared to what he's saying happened when he stood up in a courtroom in his three-piece suit."

Empirical research on the benefits of body-worn cameras is still lacking, according to Kate Puddister, an expert in police oversight at University of Guelph, and especially so in Canada, where just a handful of police departments currently use them.

The Amherstburg, Ontario police department is one of few in Canada to deploy police-worn body cameras to all its front-line officers. (CBC/The Fifth Estate)

But even so, Brown's research shows that in several regions across Canada, close to 80 per cent of police officers — and an even larger percentage of the public — support their deployment.

None of this is news to the RCMP, which conducted its own limited pilot studies of body-worn cameras in 2010 and 2013, and produced a full feasibility study in 2015 identifying several benefits.

That study recommended the "limited permanent implementation" in a single division as the best way to proceed. But the following year, the RCMP blamed technical limitations for delaying a rollout of the technology — and since then, that recommendation has sat on the shelf.

"Essentially, the leadership of the RCMP, I'm assuming, said, 'We have this internal recommendation, vendors are able to satisfy our requirements, but we're not doing it anyways,'" said Brown.

Nunavut a test case

Now, many Nunavummiut are hoping the territory can become a testing ground for the wide-scale implementation of the technology.

Body cameras are "a tool to say, 'where are opportunities to improve things?'" said Qaqqaq, the MP for Nunavut, "where we can see more of … the challenges when RCMP are in extreme situations."

On a local level, at least, the RCMP appears to be receptive. In October of last year, the commanding officer for Nunavut, Amanda Jones, requested an updated review of body cameras from national headquarters, and entered into an "open dialogue" on the idea with the territory's Department of Justice, a spokesperson said.

Amanda Jones, the commanding officer for the RCMP's V Division in Nunavut, has requested an updated review of the technology from national headquarters. (David Gunn/CBC)

There's no word yet on when that dialogue may result in action, or even exactly when the review may be completed. But there is equally no guarantee the RCMP will find in favour of a pilot study.

In its public statements since the May 5 shooting, the police force continues to cite technical barriers to deploying the devices in remote northern communities.

"The amount of information recorded is vast," Jamie Savikataaq, a spokesperson for the RCMP in Nunavut, wrote in an email. Over the course of the month, he estimates, the division's 80 members would record 24,000 hours of video.

"Where is it stored?" he asked. "If in a cloud system, can the internet speeds in the communities in the North function effectively for this purpose?  If not, are servers needed in each community?"

Technical limitations may be exaggerated

Experts are unconvinced by those objections. Most camera systems allow for selective downloading of video, to capture only moments where officers interact with the public.

Savikataaq's estimates, based on 10 hours of recording per officer, per day, are also likely exaggerated.

The RCMP's own recommendations from a 2016 "privacy impact assessment" say officers should be able to use discretion on turning cameras off and on, and record only "when there is a high likelihood of use of force being applied to a subject."

If they did it for Nunavut, they're going to have to do it everywhere.- Vernon White, senator and former assistant commissioner for the RCMP

That raises some concerns of its own.

"As an officer, I'd be very worried with the on/off protocols that some practice where you're using discretion," said Brown, the researcher. "In the spur of the moment, the last thing on your mind is going to be turning on your body camera."

"If we have discretion built into the system that the officer can turn off the camera whenever they feel like it … then the potential effectiveness is really diminished," said Puddister, the oversight expert.

The RCMP's current recommendation gives officers discretion over when to keep cameras rolling. Experts say that could make them less effective. (Christinne Muschi/REUTERS)

But there are other alternatives to continuous recording. An ongoing pilot conducted by the Kativik Regional Police Force, which operates in the Nunavik region of northern Quebec, instructs officers only to record during interventions involving domestic violence and impaired driving, and other "extraordinary incidents."

So far, they've recorded just 48 interactions since the pilot began in January — with 15 recordings being used as evidence.

"You're talking about a very small number of officers in northern communities as well," said Brown, the researcher, "so it's a very small number of incidents to download."

Where Nunavut goes, so goes the country

White, the senator, says even though the price of equipment is falling, it's still more likely that high costs are the reason the RCMP is dragging its feet.

"I think the issue is, if they did it for Nunavut, they're going to have to do it everywhere," he said. "That's when it's going to be a problem."

While Nunavut counts just 80 front-line officers, the RCMP employs nearly 20,000 across the country. The cost of outfitting all of them with body-worn cameras, White says, could be prohibitive.

If police cameras are deployed in Nunavut, it will be hard to justify keeping them out of larger, southern detachments, experts say. (Patrick Nagle/CBC )

"They have a financial problem, and the federal government needs to step into this," he said. "If it's important to do, the federal government should mandate … them."

That could cost cash-strapped governments a lot — they're on the hook for 70 per cent of RCMP costs under contracts with the federal government.

That would explain the hesitancy shown by Nunavut's Department of Justice, which has told advocates they will wait for the results of more pilot studies before pushing for their introduction to the territory.

But in those northern communities where news of another serious incident seems to break every few weeks, patience is running out.

"With violent and disturbing incidents taking place routinely in the least densely populated province or territory, the RCMP's preference for the status quo is a recipe for disaster," reads a local editorial in the Nunavut News.

"It's very difficult to convince the Department of Justice, as well as the RCMP," said Qamaniq, the MLA who has led the charge. "It's like a David and Goliath thing."

"But if the Department of Justice and the RCMP can actually do a pilot project to see how it works in the North, then they should try it at least."

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