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For immediate release: Nova Scotia Policing Policy Working Group shows that body-worn cameras will not increase police accountability

We are deeply concerned by some of the claims that representatives of Halifax Regional Police, including Chief Dan Kinsella, made yesterday in their presentation to the Board of Police Commissioners regarding the implementation of body-worn cameras (BWCs) across the police force. The Nova Scotia Policing Policy Working Group (NS PPWG) would like to take this opportunity to clarify the record on BWCs. 

To be clear: 

Spending $3.7 million on this technology, particularly at a time when both the Police Board and the HRM are actively exploring alternatives to policing in Halifax, is wrong. 

The NS PPWG’s opinion is consistent: there is little evidence to suggest that BWCs improve police accountability or reduce officers’ use of force (Lum et al., 2019; Yokum et al., 2017). Research suggests that adoption of the cameras is also premature and that many police agencies might not actually need body cameras (Laming, 2019).Footage of police abuse captured by citizens (such as the murders of George Floyd and Eric Garner or videos of undercover police inciting violence at the 2007 Montebello summit protests in Quebec) have been more effective than video captured on BWCs in holding police forces to account (Schneider, 2018). In the case of George Floyd, the officers who killed him were wearing BWCs. This technology did not prevent Derek Chauvin from kneeling on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. Floyd’s death was brought to the attention of the public because of cell phone video not body-worn camera footage. 

We also have significant concerns about the role of Axon Enterprise, who appear to hold a monopoly on this technology in Canada, in pushing for a full rollout of the BWC program in Halifax Regional Municipality, instead of a pilot program. Research by Dr. Christopher Schneider (Brandon University) and Erick Laming (Centre of Criminology and Sociolegal Studies, University of Toronto), two leading experts in Canada who have together published numerous academic studies and opinion essays that show the cameras are not the panacea that the public expects. Some of their forthcoming research about BWCs indicates that Axon has made unsubstantiated, market-based claims about the efficacy of BWCs. 

Finally, without clear policies on when officers can turn cameras on or off, and clear policies on citizen access to BWC video, the alleged increase in officer transparency is unlikely to occur.

To dig deeper into the lack of evidence in support of BWCs, we spoke with Dr. Christopher Schneider and Erick Laming about some of the claims made by Halifax Regional Police. 

Q&A: 

On Chief Kinsella’s claim that full deployment of BWCs without a pilot project are “best practices” 

Laming: “This is completely untrue. As a matter of fact, nearly all police services who have piloted BWCs (including all medium to large agencies) have equipped only a few officers with the devices. For example, both Fredericton Police Force and Medicine Hat Police Service equipped six officers each with cameras while piloting the technology. Likewise, pilot programs with the RCMP, Toronto, Montreal, Durham Region, Edmonton, Calgary, and Thunder Bay only rolled out [a] few cameras to a limited number of officers in each jurisdiction (e.g., less than 100 officers in each service).” 

Schneider: “This statement is false. In many circumstances only select patrol officers were outfitted with cameras in order to test the efficacy of body cameras against those not wearing cameras. The research is inconclusive. In some circumstances, officer use of force goes down as do citizen complaints and in other situations officer force increases. Several studies, including one in Edmonton, actually found no differences between officers wearing body-worn cameras and those not wearing the devices.” 

On Chief Kinsella’s claim that BWCs align with calls to defund the police 

Laming [when asked if this was accurate]: “No. The adoption of body-worn cameras will only increase police budgets.” 

Schneider: “Police body-worn cameras are not at all in line with calls to defund the police. Quite the opposite, in fact. The costs associated with police use of body-worn cameras (much of which is associated with the storage of data and sometimes the hiring of additional personnel) in all circumstances ). Halifax police have indicated that their proposed adoption of the cameras will result in four additional positions. Where body cameras have been adopted police budgets have increased.” 

On the relationship between the claims of BWC efficacy and Axon Enterprise Inc. 

Laming: “Axon is one of the leading BWC manufacturers in the world. They have a significant monopoly in this market. They also manufacture Tasers (conducted energy weapon) and have a complete monopoly in the Canadian context. The company has expanded and now sells a variety of technological tools for law enforcement and other industries (e.g., paramedic, fire, construction, business, etc.).

Axon plays a significant role in the processes of any police service looking to adopt BWC technology. They fund and sponsor numerous policing conferences and organizations and are actively engaged in decision-making when it comes to police technology adoption. They have a very large presence on social media, particularly on Twitter, where they explicitly comment on and support police practices across Canada. They have historically made many public claims about the efficacy of BWC technology without evidence to support those claims. Axon also employs former police officers who use their connections and networks to sell these products.” 

Schneider: “Axon is the worldwide purveyor of body-worn cameras and the company has near total control over the body-worn camera market. Think of it like this: Facebook is to social media as, say, Axon is to body cameras. In a forthcoming research paper, we examined public claims made by Axon over a six-year period and discovered that Axon’s claims regarding the efficacy of their products were mostly predicated on market assumptions rather than scientifically or legally grounded. […]

Axon has made public claims in support of their body-worn camera products[,] sometimes absent any empirical evidence, [and] often such claims were supported by beliefs and assumptions about their products. Some of Axon’s claims about the efficacy of body cameras were even made in advance of any peer reviewed studies. In other circumstances, Axon has made claims contrary to evidence. 

Axon plays a significant role decision-making with police leaders concerning the adoption of body-worn cameras. There are some serious issues with conflict-of-interest concerns but also with whether or not a single company should exert this much control over body-worn cameras. 

The public would likely be suspicious if, say, Facebook funded studies that discovered that Facebook is good for you and that you should spend more time on Facebook. The public should similarly be suspect of Axon’s role and relationships with police concerning their body-worn camera services and products.” 

On concerns about officers having discretion to turn BWCs on and off 

Laming: “Evidence varies on best practices concerning camera activation. Almost all policies give officers discretion in turning cameras on and off. However, most guidelines inform officers that they should activate the camera when they are dispatched to a call and deactivate at the conclusion of the call.

It is unrealistic to expect officers to be recording for the entirety of their shift and several police policies dictate that officers must not record certain interactions (e.g., investigative discussions between police personnel, situations that could reveal investigative techniques, administrative tasks, etc.). This area will continue to be debatable, but the evidence available suggests that having a restrictive policy on when officers must activate their cameras results in higher compliance in recording than a policy that is less restrictive on activation. These policies will vary on location and depend on several jurisdictional factors.” 

Schneider: “Very little is known about this critical issue. Currently, the RCMP, Toronto Police Service, and other law enforcement can turn the cameras on and off. There are a few concerns here. First and foremost, police discretion to switch the camera on or off invalidates any real or creditable discussions of accountability.

Second, the highest levels of discretion are exhibited by patrol officers who wear body cameras. These same officers are often the least experienced and least trained yet exhibit the highest levels of discretion.”

On whether it is wise for BWCs to be adopted in Halifax without a pilot project 

Laming: “No. There should be a period of experimentation, analysis of results, and discussion with community members before any decision is made on a full rollout. If the city of Halifax as well as the police service is serious about building trust with the community, then a pilot program examining the efficacy of BWCs on several factors is a much better investment than complete adoption. At the moment, investing in the community is more worthwhile than investing in a tool that could potentially be used against the community.” 

Schneider: “Body-worn cameras are not the panacea the public expects. Therefore, further investment in body-worn cameras is an incredibly poor use of taxpayer money. First, the research literature remains inconclusive concerning the efficacy of the devices. Second, there is zero evidence to suggest that use of body-worn cameras will lead to police transparency or accountability. The $3.7 million dollars would be better spent on community programs, which would actually be in line with defunding the police.” 

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