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Mike Howell: Do you think Vancouver police officers should wear cameras?

City council to debate motion on ABC Vancouver councillor’s request for VPD program
Vancouver police officers wore GoPro cameras in 2014 during the dismantling of a homeless camp at Oppenheimer Park.

Do you think Vancouver police officers should wear cameras on the job?

It’s a question that’s been a topic of debate for many years in this city.

That debate occurred mainly at the Vancouver Police Board and via news media, but I can’t recall in my two decades of covering civic issues that it ever made it to the city council chamber.

This week, it will.

ABC Vancouver Coun. Lenny Zhou gave us a heads-up a few weeks ago that he would draft a motion and have it ready to go for this week’s council meetings.

This is what Zhou wants: “That council formally support and take steps to enable the [Vancouver Police Department] to implement a ‘body-worn camera’ program that will equip all frontline and patrol officers by 2025.”

That’s a big ask for two reasons — cost and whether the cameras are effective.

First, the cost…

So far, we know the VPD’s proposed budget for 2023 calls for $200,000 to operate a pilot program next year.

Financial details beyond that are scant and dated.

Zhou doesn’t provide in his motion an overall budget for a camera program, which would presumably include cost of cameras, start-up costs, software, data storage and potentially a separate unit within the department.

He does, however, point to the RCMP’s rollout of 10,000 to 15,000 cameras across the country, beginning with a field test of 300 of the devices at three detachments.

The next sentence in his motion says Public Safety Canada has estimated the annual per unit cost for the RCMP’s camera and “digital evidence management system program” to be $2,000 to $3,000 annually.

To further confuse the math, the federal government’s 2020 “fall economic statement” committed $238.5 million over six years towards body-worn cameras.

In an interview Monday, Zhou said the aim of his motion is to launch a pilot program next year, evaluate it and then have staff report back to council in early 2024 with results and estimated cost of implementing a permanent program in Vancouver.

“I heard the costs have been significantly reduced over the past few years because [the cameras] have been very popular in the world,” Zhou said.

“So the cost for the cameras is actually coming down to — I don't know — $100 or something. The highest cost is the data storage. That's the main cost, but it's been going down, as well.”

ABC Vancouver Coun. Lenny Zhou wants the city to launch a pilot program next year that has Vancouver police officers wear body cameras. Photo Mike Howell/Vancouver Is Awesome

$17.2 million was estimate in 2016

Back in 2016 I heard from then-VPD media liaison officer, Sgt. Brian Montague, who said the cost of setting up a new camera unit within the department, along with outfitting officers and purchasing new equipment, was estimated at $17.2 million.

Montague is now a city councillor and belongs to the same party as Zhou.

The huge cost of implementing the cameras was cited again by current media liaison officer, Const. Tania Visintin, in an email to me in August 2020 and again on Monday by Sgt. Steve Addison, also of the VPD’s media unit.

“We’ve looked at body-worn cameras in the past, but it’s always been prohibitive due to the costs of purchasing and maintaining equipment, as well as data storage,” Addison said in an email.

“There are other challenges that need to be addressed, including privacy concerns for people who are recorded but have not committed a crime, and the ability of Crown counsel to process and disclose evidence gathered during criminal investigations.”

Added Addison: “We will respect the wishes of city council and have requested an additional $200,000 in next year’s police budget to implement a pilot project to study the effectiveness of body-worn cameras.”

'The video will likely be obscured'

Police Chief Adam Palmer is on record telling B.C.’s Special Committee on Reforming the Police Act that he supports the deployment of cameras as a tool to strengthen public trust and confidence in police.

As far back as 2013, a Vancouver police report that went before the police board pointed to several benefits of having police wear cameras, including increased transparency.

“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,” the report said.

“However, it is important to note that the value of [body cameras] 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.”

Ralph Kaisers, president of the Vancouver Police Union, said in an email Monday: “We do have concerns around privacy, Crown disclosure, workload, costs and whether the footage will be considered the member’s evidence, for any and all of their reports. If these all can be addressed, we would support a pilot project to start.”

GoPros in Oppenheimer Park

The last time I recall Vancouver police experimenting with body-worn cameras was with GoPro cameras when they cleared the Oppenheimer Park tent city in 2014.

Police wrote a report on the experiment but I have yet to see it, although I don’t recall any controversy raised at the time, as Pivot Legal Society was in the park to observe officers on that day.

The B.C. government now has standards for how police officers should use body cameras, but they don’t mandate their use. Delta Police Department has outfitted some of its officers with cameras.

The Delta force currently has 16 cameras, according to information posted on the department’s website, which said total cost of the purchase of the cameras and associated equipment was $18,000.

Approximately half of the cost was funded by a “police training and equipment grant” from the provincial civil forfeiture office.

Debate via Twitter leading up to this week’s debate has centred around the efficacy of cameras, with OneCity Coun. Christine Boyle pointing to a 2017 study out of Washington, D.C.

For seven months, more than a thousand Washington, D.C. officers were randomly assigned cameras — and another thousand were not, according to a study led by the Lab@DC, a team of government scientists and an employee of D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department.

The conclusion: “Law enforcement agencies [particularly in contexts similar to Washington, D.C.] that are considering adopting [body worn cameras] should not expect dramatic reductions in use of force or complaints, or other large-scale shifts in police behaviour, solely from the deployment of this technology.”

Asked about that study, Zhou pointed to a study out of Rialto, Calif. that saw complaints against officers drop by 88 per cent and use-of-force incidents decrease by 59 per cent.

“We heard during the campaign that people were worried about public safety, but also worried about accountability and transparency,” he said.

“This motion brings exactly that accountability and transparency. So from this perspective, it just makes sense to do it.”

Zhou and his ABC colleagues, who form a majority on council, campaigned in this year's election to hire 100 officers and 100 mental health nurses, reinstate the VPD school liaision program (which the party's trustees agreed to do in vote last week) and push for body worn cameras.

The party was endorsed by the Vancouver Police Union during the campaign.

Zhou’s motion is on Tuesday’s agenda but will likely be pushed to Wednesday to hear from people who registered to speak to council about the cameras.

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