Toronto police want to deploy body-worn cameras service-wide

The Toronto Police Service is seeking permission to start the process for acquiring body-worn cameras for all officers, following a high-profile pilot project amid rising tensions between police and members of the public across North America.

TPS to ask board for permission to put out call for proposals from potential suppliers

Eighty-five front-line officers wore the cameras while performing regular duties between last May and March of this year. (CBC)

The Toronto Police Service is seeking permission to start the process for acquiring body-worn cameras for all officers, following a high-profile pilot project amid rising tensions between police and members of the public across North America.

The body-camera pilot project wrapped up in March, and the subsequent report was presented to the Police Services Board Thursday.

Among the report's findings is the fact that, although the technology didn't meet officers' complete needs, body-worn cameras "do provide the unbiased, independent account of police/community interactions, as expected," a statement from Toronto police said.

The TPS will seek permission from the board to open the bidding process for the contract to supply body cameras to the entire force, the statement said.

The pilot project and subsequent review found that as many as 95 per cent of the public and 85 per cent of officers support the use of body-worn cameras, according to the statement. The report noted that support rose in both camps as the pilot project went on.

Mayor John Tory said he is "a supporter of body-worn cameras in terms of the degree to which they will increase accountability and increase transparency in policing."

However, the report was presented to the board right before Thursday's meeting, he said, so the matter has been put over until October to give board members time to review the findings.

Numerous challenges

Officers found that the cameras posed a number of challenges, including technical problems such as poor battery life, and an increased administrative workload. Both Tory and Police Chief Mark Saunders expressed concerns that dealing with footage from the cameras added up to as much as two hours of extra work per shift for officers.

Saunders noted that technology has advanced since the pilot project started, and the force has learned what it would want from a body-worn camera should the program go service-wide.

"So I really do think at the end of the day when we take the time necessary to get the right product that will give us the best results, I think it's going to be a win not just for law enforcement, but for the public, as well," Saunders said.

According to the report, officers also felt that although members of the public felt comfortable dealing with an officer wearing a camera, they were were also less likely to provide information during an investigation.

Officers also felt less able to use their discretion when dealing with a member of the community, according to the report, as evidenced by an increase in the number of arrests over the pilot-project period and a decreased number of warnings.

The report also suggested that the cost of deploying body cameras could be prohibitive. The estimated cost for the first year of implementation is about $20 million, according to the report. Over five years, a body-camera program could cost the force an estimated $51 million.

"There is considerable public interest in the use of body-worn cameras by the Toronto Police Service, as indicated by the unprecedented response to the neighbourhood surveys carried out for this evaluation. Community expectations for body-worn cameras are high," the report concludes.

"If the challenges identified in the evaluation can be addressed, the use of body-worn cameras by Toronto Police officers would be seen as a powerful indication of commitment to accountability, the desire to strengthen public trust and police legitimacy, and a commitment to ensuring officers are protected from unwarranted accusations of misconduct."

Saunders said Thursday he is not overly concerned about the cost of the cameras.

"This is a mission to try to enhance public trust to make sure that there is objective viewpoints of interactions that we have with the public, and anything that promotes that is a good thing," Saunders said.

"So I'm not focused on the cost to that extent. I'm more interested in making sure that the public is reassured that the men and women are doing their job and treating people with dignity and respect."

Widespread calls for body cameras

In February, a CBC News poll found that 75 per cent of city residents agree that Toronto police should wear body cameras. 

Eighty-one per cent of survey respondents said they strongly or somewhat agree that the prevalence of cameras will lead to more police officers being accountable for their actions.

Equipping officers who may come in contact with people in crisis with body cameras was a key recommendation in former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci's 2014 report on a "zero death" police culture. The report, which focused on the use of force by police, was spurred by the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim by Const. James Forcillo in 2013.

In January, the investigator who charged Forcillo said the incident showed the need for body-worn cameras. Ian Scott told CBC's Metro Morning that it was video evidence from the streetcar and from eyewitnesses, as well as interviews with police and bystanders, that made a compelling case for laying charges.

Earlier this year, Forcillo was found guilty of attempted murder in Yatim's death. He is appealing that conviction.

Scott noted that body cameras not only provide evidence of an officer's interactions with the community, but can also help identify training-related issues that need to be addressed.