The cost of accountability: Can Canadian police services afford body cam technology?

A growing number of police services evaluating body worn cameras have abandoned the idea over high costs and few guidelines.

Head of Toronto pilot project says provincial and federal governments should consider U.S.-style grants

Toronto Police allowed CBC to ride along during the year-long body camera pilot project. (CBC)

One of the clearest conclusions following the recent Toronto Police Service pilot project of body-worn cameras was how positive the public felt about them.

A police commissioned survey found 95 per cent strongly supported the idea and 85 per cent of the police officers involved agreed, according to Insp. Michael Barsky who led the program, adding many officers didn't want to give the cameras back at the end of the pilot.

Less clear was the cost. A report following the pilot project pegged the price tag at $85 million over 10 years.

"That's an estimate," explained Barsky:

"That doesn't include the administrative costs, the cost of the personnel, the cost of computers, the cost of ... software that would also be incurred and so because of that we know that that number is very very high."

Now, the Toronto Police Board has approved spending $500,000 on a non-binding request for proposals to find the best, most affordable camera technology.

Maybe technology needs to mature

But Barsky concedes, while the technology may be the wave of the future: "I don't know if that means today, though. It may mean that we need this to mature a little bit more."

It seems that's the conclusion this week by the RCMP following a feasibility study.

The national police force would have been the largest to don body-worn cameras.

A statement said the study found the technology wasn't ready for the realities of RCMP policing.

"The RCMP's 750 detachments located in mostly remote areas, combined with the extreme climate, and the diversity between rural and urban policing presents constant challenges when it comes to equipment and information technology infrastructure," the statement said.

"Other challenges such as retention and storage have also been ascertained."

Police officers involved in the Toronto pilot project reported spending as much as two hours dealing with video at the end of each day. (CBC)

Retention and storage of video have been the main drivers of costs associated with body-worn cameras.

RCMP officers not surprised body cams abandoned

RCMP officers are disappointed, but not surprised, said Sgt. Brian Sauvé, on leave from his position on the force to co-chair the National Police Federation.

"They're probably making the right decision," said Sauvé.

He notes officers across the country were alarmed to find out police involved in the Toronto pilot project were spending as much as two hours dealing with video at the end of the day.

He said the RCMP is already wrestling with budget constraints and out-of-control over-time costs.

The RCMP is just the latest police service to abandon body cams — at least for now.

Edmonton and Vancouver police services have also agreed to shelve the idea following concerns over price.

Edmonton police have shelved body cameras, but it may not be forever. (CBC )

The Calgary Police Service had wanted to be the first to outfit all officers with equipment by early 2017, but has hit a major set-back.

The project has been put on ice while the service seeks out a new vendor after experiencing safety and technical problems with its original supplier.

A $1.3-million contract with that vendor has been terminated, and the service will not rule out taking the company to court to recoup costs after finding technical problems with the devices.

The Ottawa Police Service told CBC it has a small team of researchers watching the debate over cameras and costs closely as it tries to assess launching its own pilot project.

Chief Charles Bordeleau said in a statement a number of challenges have to be resolved, including cost.

Need stronger rules ahead of investment

One of the few researchers looking into the issue of cost is Erick Laming with the criminology department at the University of Toronto.

Eighty-five per cent of Toronto police officers involved in a body camera pilot project supported using the new technology. (CBC)

He said the jury is still out on the value-for-money proposition, particularly since there are some conflicting studies on whether body cameras reduce complaints and affect police behaviour in the long term.

At the same time, police services are being asked to make these investments while there are still no rules around how to protect privacy, how to use the video as evidence, and how long data should be stored, said Laming.

"A lot of community members say there shouldn't be a price on accountability and I agree but you've got to think of this long term and how much this is going to end up costing," said Laming.

But Barsky notes there have been enormous improvements in technology since Toronto first launched its pilot project in 2014.

There are more robust batteries and cameras on the market, and cloud storage has significantly lowered the price of retaining and storing video, said Barsky.

Should provincial and federal governments support body cams?

But it's hard to compete with U.S. police services, which have received millions of dollars in grants to support efforts to equip officers with body cameras.

In the wake of highly publicized police shootings and push-back by citizens, in September 2015, the Obama administration announced $23 million in grants to support pilot projects for police services in 32 states as part of its "commitment to building trust and transparency between law enforcement and the communities they serve."

Barsky wonders whether that kind of support will be needed to turn body camera pilot projects into full blown programs.

"Many municipalities couldn't possibly afford to embark upon this themselves, so the federal and provincial governments I think have o be part of the equation," said Barsky.

Certainly the pilot projects devoted to body cameras are being watched closely by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police — in particular the issue of costs.

Spokesperson Timothy Smith wrote in an email response: "The most significant costs are associated with the reporting, storage, and review of video. So while we understand and value the merits of body-warn cameras, and do feel it is a useful and desirable tool for officers and the public, we are not at the point of seeking out federal grants."