Ottawa police may soon be carrying body cameras, but not everyone is convinced
As the Ottawa Police Union praises a proposal in its 2023 budget proposal to equip police officers with body cameras, one expert warns the technology won’t do much to change police culture.
The budget unveiled last month calls for spending $400,000 on what the Ottawa Police Services Board calls “digital information and evidence management” technology.
These could include body cameras, which the budget claims will boost trust in the police, investigate complaints about officer behavior and provide the “best evidence”.
“It will [lead] to transparency and accountability. It will enhance day-to-day interactions between police and the public,” said Matthew Cox, President of the Ottawa Police Association.
Ottawa Police have championed body cameras for more than a decade, said Cox, a self-proclaimed “big supporter” of the technology.
But issues like data storage costs have always gotten in the way, he told CBC radio Ottawa morning.
Already in other cities
If the spending is approved, the Ottawa police force would be the latest in Canada to be equipped with this technology.
Toronto police began carrying body cameras in 2020, while last year Vancouver City Council approved a plan to have officers equipped with cameras by 2025.
Despite arguments that cameras will improve accountability and make the public feel safer, there is little scientific evidence to suggest so, said Kevin Walby, associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg.
Walby cited a meta-analysis — essentially a study analyzing previous studies — published in 2020 by researchers in Australia and the US, which concluded that body cameras had no “consistent” effect on police officer or citizen behavior.
Walby tells Ottawa morning that the limited perspective of a camera worn on an officer’s body is not as valuable as video captured by bystanders from a wider angle.
Officers may also feel like they can go “straight to the line” if they have to use force — and often more than is strictly necessary — because they know the cameras are recording their actions and they’ll be rehabilitated, Walby said .
“They are instruments of legitimacy,” he said.
“When the police are in a crisis, when the police are feeling all these forms of community resistance, when the community is actually asking for the police to be defunded – then the police turn to these body cameras because they allow them to do a little bit more to have a budget line.”
“Better than no video at all”
Walby also noted that the presence of body cameras did not avert the death of Tire Nichols, a black motorist who died during a traffic stop in January after a confrontation with Memphis police officers.
But Cox told it Ottawa morning He believed the cameras had been instrumental in getting the five officers fired just as quickly and charged with second-degree murder.
And while body cameras may not capture the entire scene, images captured by bystanders can also be manipulated, he argued.
“I think taking some video is better than no video at all,” Cox said. “And that’s currently what we have right now is not a video.”
The public can still comment on the budget via a questionnaire or comment directly at the February 27 board meeting. The Council’s final vote on the budget is scheduled for March 1st.