Ottawa cellblock audio plan questioned

Ottawa police say they will have an audio recording system installed in cellblocks by the end of January, but there are questions as to when the system will be turned on.
Video released by an Ottawa judge shows a special constable kicking Terry Delay as fellow officers drag him to a cell. ((Ottawa Police Service))

Ottawa police say they will have an audio recording system installed in cellblocks by the end of January, but there are questions as to when the system will be turned on.

Police decided to add audio surveillance in addition to cellblock cameras in response to a public outcry after two videos were released last year showing what appeared to be rough treatment of prisoners.

Ottawa police Chief Vern White told the city's police services board on Monday night that audio recording devices would be added at two cellblock areas where prisoners are processed, but as with cameras, there would be no audio within the cells themselves.

White also said the audio would not be an automatic system that records everything, but instead only be turned on when prisoners and police officers are in the area.

Mayor Jim Watson questioned that decision at the board meeting.

"The video system is on all the time as I understand it," said Watson. "Why wouldn't the audio be on at the same time as the video?"

White said leaving the audio off is meant to protect the privacy of individual officers.

"It's not meant to capture conversations between employees having a lunch or anything else," said White.

Stacy Bonds, shown in a cellblock video being pinned down, is suing Ottawa police for arresting and strip-searching her in 2008. ((CBC))

White said the audio is meant to capture all interactions with prisoners, but he couldn't clarify how the system would be turned on and off.

Doug Baum, the head of the Ottawa Criminal Defence Lawyers Association, said giving police that kind of discretion undermines the purpose behind recording the audio in the first place.

"The point here is to capture the person's detention," said Baum. "There won't be much use if you have video and the audio comes on halfway into the incident."

In an extreme example of discretionary use of cellblock recording, a woman in Shreveport, La., was detained in 2007 on a drunk driving charge and brought into a detention area, where video captures her asking for a lawyer.

The video of Angela Garbarino's arrest stops at that point, and when it resumes, she is seen on the floor lying in a pool of her own blood. Shreveport police fired the arresting officer but refused to charge him, citing the gap in the recording.

The Ottawa police force has been drawing criticism since November, when a judge stayed charges against Stacy Bonds and said she was both unlawfully arrested and treated inhumanely in 2008 while in police custody.

The subsequent release of video of her arrest, and the arrest of homeless man Terry Delay, who is seen being kicked as he's put into a jail cell, prompted the province's Special Investigation Unit to launch an investigation.

A subsequent Ontario Provincial Police probe has turned up four additional incidents that are now under investigation.