Three weeks into a pilot project that will see 100 front-line officers wear body cameras for a year, Toronto police personnel have captured video of everything from armed encounters to beer cans.
The force introduced the cameras May 18. So far 65 officers are using them, with 35 more to adopt the devices within a month, according to Staff Sgt. Michael Barsky, who's overseeing the $500,000 test run.
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That includes constables on bicycle patrol in 43 Division in Scarborough, patrol car officers at 55 Division in the Riverdale-Danforth-Woodbine area, and motorcycle officers doing traffic enforcement.
Barsky said Toronto Police are trying out the cameras in response to a pair of reports. One, by former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci, recommended every officer carrying a taser stun gun and every officer who "may encounter people in crisis" wear a body camera. The other, a review of the force's controversial practice of "carding," recommended exploring the possibility of having every uniformed officer wear a camera.
"We believe that from all the studies that we've done and all the resources that we've spoken to, that this will create a better, more accurate record of the police interactions with the community," Barsky said.
There have been some technical failures during the first three weeks, but also some "great" video captured, he said.
"We have interactions with people armed with weapons, captured on camera, captured by multiple cameras and multiple angles, which is powerful," Barsky said.
'Actual beer cans lying around'
A news team that followed a 43 Division bicycle patrol one day this week saw less dramatic scenes, however. Officers used their cameras to film people outside an apartment building in Scarborough's West Hill neighbourhood.
"My officers are investigating a gentleman that doesn't reside at this building, that's hanging around outside the doors. He's got open liquor and he has been consuming alcohol out in public, so he's being investigated for that," patrol leader Sgt. Bernard Hawco said. "It's all being captured on in car camera.
Some part of the best evidence that I've seen being captured by the officers over there is the actual beer cans lying around."
Hawco said the man would be ticketed.
Sukanya Pillay, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said her organization can accept the police use of body cameras but only as a tool to hold officers accountable — and only with restrictions to protect privacy.
"They can be a tool for accountability because they can videotape the direct contact of an encounter that's in question, where there are issues around the behaviour and actions of the police officers in question," Pillay said.
"We do not believe that police officers should be allowed to edit on the fly. The camera should always be rolling. They should be restricted mainly to uniformed officers who should tell people. Somehow it should be demonstrated that they're wearing this camera."
Pillay said officers should not be allowed to capture "random surveillance of people going about their business."
"We don't want to have the body cameras turned into a tool of mass surveillance."