Forty police officers will be equipped with body cameras this autumn in the Montreal boroughs of Montréal-Nord, Plateau Mont-Royal and Lachine. This is the second phase of the SPVM’s portable camera pilot project.

The first phase saw around 30 SPVM agents wearing body cams in public locations (mostly in the metro) where they frequently intervened in civil violations.

The pilot project is a test run, limited in numbers and time. According to Journal Métro, an unspecified number of officers will wear body cameras starting September 29th and 12 officers in Montréal-Nord will do the same as of October 15th. Lachine is also going to participate.

The total number of officers involved in the project will be around forty. All cameras will be removed in February 2017. The SPVM will then proceed to public consultations to hear what citizens think of the experiment.

Police organizations hope that the installation of body cameras will provide court evidence and give a fuller picture than the “partial” videos circulating on social media. Those who are worried by police abuse hope it will improve accountability and transparency in law enforcement.

The Minister of Public Safety approved the project and officially designated the SPVM as the leader of the pilot experiment for the province, according to the SPVM’s website. In other words, the results will be communicated to the Ministry of Public Safety and possibly serve as inspiration for similar projects across the province.*

How it works

The SPVM officers with body cameras will be identified by special badges. They also must verbally warn people that they are being filmed as soon as possible.  Officers can deactivate or deviate the camera at the demand of a person who wants to protect her privacy, but they are under no obligation to do so.

Footage of an intervention will be accessible to courts and to the police officers, once they have submitted their general report about the filmed intervention. Any person or media who wants to see the footage can make a demand through the provincial Access to Information law.

The cameras will not be rolling the entire time. The officers wearing them will be responsible for starting the recording when the “rules of engagement are met”, which means before an intervention. The SPVM website says that the deactivation of the camera should be an exceptional measure only, but there is no clear rule about what constitutes an exceptional situation. A spokesperson for the SPVM, contacted by phone, specified that strip-searches will never be filmed. Officers can also choose to stop recording in order to de-escalate a conflict with a subject who doesn’t want to be filmed. Although there is no formal rule, “the key words to take into consideration are the dignity and vulnerability of the citizens”.*

Available data and the importance of correct usage

Although this is the first initiative of the sort in the province, similar projects were implemented elsewhere in Canada, while some American police forces have adopted body cameras on a definitive basis.

The city of Victoria in BC started the first Canadian project in 2009. Toronto Police have been running one for just about a year and used their experience to give a few pointers to the SPVM.

Calgary also started a pilot project in November, with the confessed ambition of becoming the first Canadian city whose police force is fully equipped with body cameras. However, Calgary’s enthusiasm and program were cut short due to equipment problems and concerns over its cost.

The cost of the equipment remains one of the major concerns for all cities. Toronto estimates that getting body cams on roughly 3000 officers could cost around $85 million over 10 years.

Despite this, the projects have all yielded some very positive results. Research across US and Canada showed that cameras seem to reduce violence from both citizens and police officers. In some cases, the usage of force by police decreased by 60% when they were wearing the cams.

A study published in September 2015 examined 3 698 field reports in Mesa, Arizona to compare the situations with body cameras and situations with no body cameras. They found that officers with cams performed fewer Stop-and-Frisks and fewer arrests, but initiated interaction with citizens more often than their counterparts.

Researchers at Cambridge and RAND Europe brought an important nuance to the positive results with a study on 2122 officers across the U.S. and U.K.

Their results were puzzling as they seemed to associate the use of body cameras with an increase in violent interactions. However deeper analysis revealed that the increase in violence was associated with officers using the cameras at their own discretion.

The officers were instructed to keep the cameras on at all times and to immediately warn subjects that they were filmed. When those rules were followed, use of force decreased by 37% on average.  When they weren’t, the use of force was significantly more frequent than when there was no camera at all.

Recent laws around the accessibility of these footage have also raised concerns. As this WIRED article nicely explains, filming police but not allowing the public to see the footage is becoming more and more frequent. That is not what transparency is.

In other words, body cameras work if their use is properly supervised and regulated. But leaving too much discretionary power to the officers wearing them can have the opposite effect.

Police officers want them

The Fraternité des Policiers de Montréal has been advocating for the use of body cameras since 2013.  The idea came in the aftermath of the student protests of 2012, when citizens started routinely filming police interventions. Many such videos made the rounds on social media, arousing public scrutiny and criticism of police methods.

Yves Francoeur, president of the Fraternité des Policiers de Montréal, had previously stated that his organization was “always favorable to this” since they would rather have their own footage then the “partially taken videos” often filmed on smart phones. Other groups of police officers, including the Quebec City Fraternity and the SQ syndicate, have expressed their support for similar reasons.

The SPVM says that the project’s two primary goals are increasing the transparency of police interventions and ameliorating the public’s trust in the police service.

* The article was updated after SPVM’s public relations team called back with additional information on September 21st.

People in crisis die at the hands of police officers too often and it’s not because those officers don’t follow the rules. “It’s because they do,” concluded Ontario’s ombudsman Paul Dubé after a three year long investigation.

In a 90-page report released on Wednesday, Dubé asserted that many deaths could be avoided if Ontario’s officers were taught when and how to de-escalate situations instead of drawing their weapons. He urged the provincial government to use its “legal and moral authority” and take action.

“We don’t need another study that too many people in crisis died at the hands of police,” Dubé declared while presenting his report in Queen’s Park on Wednesday, “we don’t need another study or consultation to determine that police training on de-escalation is inadequate. What we need is recognition by the government that the status quo is unacceptable.”

The document, called A Matter of Life and Death, includes 22 recommendations mostly focused on changing police culture and reshaping training.

sammy yatim
Sammy Yatim (image: YouTube)

The ombudsman’s investigation was prompted by the highly publicized 2013 case of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim, the Toronto teenager who was yielding a knife in an empty streetcar when police officer James Forcillo shot him eight times. Last January, the court ruled that Constable Forcillo did not break the law by firing the first three shots that incapacitated and probably fatally wounded Yatim. Firing six more bullets on a clearly incapacitated person, however, was ruled attempted murder.

Yatim’s parents are convinced their son would be alive if Forcillo had chosen to use his words instead of his gun. After the judgement, his mother told the press: “I believe if Forcillo asked my son, ‘What is your name?’ — just this question — he will not shoot him, he will calm him.”

A claim now supported by Dubé’s findings.

“Ontario officers have plenty of training on how to use their guns, but not enough on how to use their mouths,” said the ombudsman during Wednesday’s speech. “The majority of their training focuses on exerting authority and establishing control over armed or hostile subjects, principally by drawing their weapons and yelling commands.”

Nineteen more people were killed by Ontario police forces since then. Dubé underlined that many of them were in crisis.

According to the documentary Hold Your Fire, although the number of people killed by police remained fairly constant during the last decade, the proportion of mentally ill persons among them is growing alarmingly. They estimated that currently 40% of people killed in police actions across Canada are mentally ill.

The Very Blurry Bigger Picture

The lack of reliable data makes it very difficult to compare Ontario’s situation with the rest of the country. There are no official records of civilian deaths during police interventions at the federal level and provincial statistics are rare. In fact, citizens and media are left to rely on civil organisations to keep track of police shootings.

CRAP (French acronym for Coalition Against Police Repression and Abuse) keeps a non-extensive record of civilian deaths at the hands of police. In the three years since Yatim’s death, it recorded 18 cases in Ontario (compared to the 19 mentioned in Dubé’s report) and 17 in Quebec. Dubé deplored that Ontario’s mandatory police training lasted only 12 weeks, less than anywhere else in the country. Quebec’s only lasts 15 (although it should be noted that, in both cases, a majority of applicants have also completed a collegial diploma in general police work).

Quebec’s police dealings with people in crisis has also been criticized, notably in the Alain Magloire case in 2014. Last March, the coroner, while refraining from outright blaming the police officers, critiqued their communication among themselves as well as with Magloire and recommended added training for intervening with mentally ill people.

Alain Magloire (image: Facebook)
Alain Magloire (image: Facebook)

Since 2013, the Montreal police department (SPVM) has around 223 officers specially trained to handle people in crisis. “Why not all of them?” suggested the coroner.

A commission investigating the handling of the 2012 student protests in Quebec also blamed police culture for favouring repressive tactics and unnecessary use of weapons.

Piecing together the information paints a worrying picture, albeit an incomplete one. Above all, it underlines the importance of keeping reliable and comprehensive records.

There is no valid excuse for the number of police killings in Canada to be further than a Google search away.