Vancouver city council backed a police department plan to implement body cameras by 2025, sparking a debate about the effectiveness of the technology, the high cost and concerns about privacy and surveillance.
Implementing body cameras is part of a suite of police-focused measures that A Better City, or ABC, campaigned on during the Vancouver election. Now with a majority on council, ABC has pushed through two early motions to signal they’ll make good on those promises, even though the city’s budget consultations and approval won’t happen until the first three months of 2023.
An earlier motion approved $16 million to hire some of the 100 police officers and 100 mental health nurses ABC promised.
The motion Thursday signalled council’s intention to move ahead with introducing body cameras by 2025. The cameras, when activated, record police interactions with the public.
The three opposition councillors on council — Christine Boyle with OneCity, and Pete Fry and Adriane Carr of the Greens — say they’re alarmed about the way multimillion-dollar decisions are being made before the budget process is underway.
Boyle, Fry and Carr all pointed out that the Vancouver Police Board has budgeted $200,000 for a body cameras pilot program and said it’s premature to support a permanent program before the results of the project are known.
The Vancouver Police Department is asking for $383 million for its 2023 budget — $21 million more than the $362 million city staff have budgeted for policing. It’s a $38-million — or 11-per-cent — increase over this year’s budget.
Fry also questioned how the ABC-majority council would balance promises to spend more on policing with parallel promises to lower taxes and not cut other city services.
“We don't know what our budget’s going to look like,” Fry said. “This council has committed tens of millions of dollars.... I worry greatly about where the money is coming from. What is it going to mean for Vancouverites moving forward?”
But Lenny Zhou, the ABC councillor who brought the body camera motion forward, said there is ample evidence from the United States that body cameras are effective in reducing public complaints about police behaviour and resolving complaints more quickly and cheaply. The RCMP is in the midst of rolling out a new body camera program, and the Delta Police Department has also completed a pilot program.
“It will enhance public safety and accountability,” Zhou said, warning that Vancouver could be left behind in adopting the technology if council doesn’t act now. Zhou noted that the B.C. government already has an existing policing standard to guide the use of police body cameras and the collection and protection of video footage.
The Toronto Police Service plans to spend $34 million on 2,350 cameras and video storage over the next five years. The RCMP has budgeted $131 million over five years to buy 12,500 camera subscriptions.
If the VPD introduced a program similar to the one Toronto police are planning, the total cost could be around $8 million. The Vancouver department currently has 1,348 officers, compared to the Toronto’s 5,500 police officers.
As debate continues over racism in policing and concerns about deaths or injuries caused by police, especially when police attend mental health calls, advocates in the United States and Canada have warned that body cameras can’t be seen as a one-stop solution to fixing racism and police accountability.
“African Nova Scotian communities and Indigenous communities have been talking about police misconduct for decades and decades, if not centuries, and nothing has changed,” Tari Ajadi, a member of the Nova Scotia Policing Policy working group told the Halifax Examiner in December 2020. “Why body-worn cameras would suddenly transform what is in fact a systemic issue, I don’t quite see how that would happen.”
A report on the effectiveness of body cameras produced by the Halifax Regional Police noted that “very little is known about whether BWV deployment has any impact on systemic racism or improved outcomes for racialized groups and individuals” and warned that “the use of BWV could exacerbate racial tensions around policing, if for example the use of BWV does not lead to concurrent improvements in equity in police treatment and outcomes.”
The report, which reviewed a range of research on body cameras from the U.S., the U.K. and Canada, concluded that using the technology could provide “some benefits to both police and public under the right conditions.”
“It is unreasonable to expect BWV to be a silver-bullet solution to a wide range of issues, but the overall weight of evidence suggests that BWV can have some positive effects, especially around resolution of complaints against police officers,” the report states.
“The most important overarching finding from existing research appears to be that the success of bodyworn cameras in improving police outcomes, accountability and relationships with the public is heavily dependent on the implementation context. The particular policy framework, the quality of implementation, and the pre-existing local political context will influence whether BWV achieves any intended goals.”
The Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, the BC Civil Liberties Association and PACE, an organization that supports sex workers in Vancouver, all oppose the proposal to equip Vancouver police with body cameras.
In a statement drafted following a discussion of the issue at a VANDU meeting, members said they acknowledged that “some initiatives for police reform have campaigned for the implementation of BWCs for local police departments” because of the effectiveness of video evidence in bringing police officers to justice when they wrongly kill or injure people.
But “we were suspicious of why VPD would voluntarily request the implementation of BWCs, when the police have historically, and continue, to resist accountability for their regular use of violence against the community,” the VANDU statement reads.
Heather — a participant in the discussion — had an answer, Vandu said. “The VPD wants money — our money. We reminded ourselves that every dollar spent on the police budget is siphoned out of funding for necessary community resources.”
Critics are also worried about privacy risks. In response to the RCMP’s plan to implement body cameras, the Native Women’s Association of Canada said body cameras could “improve evidence collection against those who perpetrate violence against Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQIA+ people” and “ensure officers check their behaviour when interacting with Indigenous people by recording interactions.”
But, the association said, it has concerns about privacy breaches of the video footage that could expose Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQIA+ people to “violence and social harm.” The organization urged the RCMP to develop an effective policy that takes privacy risks into account.