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Vancouver police ponder wearing cameras

PIVOT argues cameras would reduce problem incidents
A Vancouver judge ruled Wednesday the Harper government's mandatory minimum sentencing law for drug offences was "cruel and unusual punishment" and is of "no force and effect." File photo Dan Toulgoet

The Vancouver Police Department is considering running an experiment next year that will see police officers wear small cameras on their uniforms.

The cameras would be used to record officers’ interactions with the public in an effort to increase transparency, officer safety and assist in determining facts of a dispute or altercation.

“When an incident occurs and the facts of the case are disputed by police officers and suspects, the camera provides another set of facts which may aid in determining what actually occurred,” according to a report that went before the Vancouver Police Board Tuesday. “However, it is important to note that the value of [a camera] in many use-of-force situations is limited due to the fact that in the case of a struggle, the video will likely be obscured.”

The VPD has met with companies that sell the cameras and police agencies that have used the devices, including the Albuquerque Police Department and the Edmonton Police Service. The Victoria Police Department also provided some information on its experiment.

A presentation to the police board Tuesday showed various styles of cameras that range from the size of a smartphone to a pen. Prices range from $100 to $500 but Police Chief Jim Chu said the more expensive costs are storage of data and staff time related to transcription and other duties.

Chu said it would likely be cost prohibitive for the VPD to set up its own server to store the data. But, he added, many camera vendors also include storage options.

“They’ve been able to offer quite a reasonable rate,” the chief said.

While the VPD cited numerous benefits to the cameras including evidence gathering, the report said any legal and civil liberty concerns have to be resolved before implementation.

The report said clear recording guidelines need to be implemented to ensure that video which portrays an officer in a negative light is not deleted.

In addition, rules would be needed to govern the use of the camera when in a private dwelling. For example, if an officer attends a domestic dispute call and films the inside of a house, fears are the footage could be used at a later date for an unrelated investigation.

“While many agencies have differing views on how to handle such a situation, it is possible with some video management products to limit who is able to view video so an unrelated investigator could not view the video until a search warrant was granted,” the report said.

The report noted neither the Canadian nor B.C. civil liberties associations have released an official position on the cameras. But Pivot Legal Society, one of the city’s main VPD watchdogs, welcomes the cameras.

“We see the benefits of it,” said Pivot lawyer Douglas King, who regularly questions policies of the police board related to use of force. “You identify problem officers, you put a camera on them and that’s going to be a pretty big deterrent [to committing any misconduct].”

King disagreed with the report’s conclusion that a camera wouldn’t be useful in a use-of-force situation. King said a camera could help identify the initial interaction with a person before an officer believes he has to use force to make an arrest.

“A lot of our clients say the police are quite free in making up stories about their behaviour to justify use of force and the cameras might be effective in preventing that from happening because it will capture what the subject actually did before use-of-force was used,” King said.

The VPD said it will await the completion of Edmonton’s experiment with the cameras before it considers a short-term project in Vancouver. The VPD said that project could commence sometime in mid-2014.

(Note: This story has been updated since it was first posted Nov. 12)