As the public calls for more police accountability, services across the Greater Toronto Area are considering or rolling out body-worn cameras to capture officers’ interactions with citizens.
CityNews has asked major Toronto-area police services about their policies on using body-worn cameras, including when the footage captured should be released to the public, or handed over to the Special Investigations Unit (SIU).
As the rules surrounding the SIU’s investigations into police use of force and serious misconduct stand, investigators could have difficulty getting footage from police forces. In an SIU investigation, one or more “subject officers” are usually the focus of the investigation. Subject officers can say no to being interviewed by investigators, and they don’t have to turn over their notes about what happened.
Whether footage from an officer’s body-worn camera can be considered part of a subject officer’s notes is unclear, and has led to at least one tug-of-war between the watchdog body and a GTA police force.
Since August 2020, Toronto has outfitted 40 per cent of its police officers with bodycams, mostly in the western half of the city. The service is working on putting cameras on all 2,350 frontline members by October 2021. Toronto Police Service has also released its body-worn camera policies, which state that footage should be released to special investigators and the public, but there are limits.
After a pilot program, this spring the region decided to roll out police body-worn cameras over the next three years. Acting Sgt. George Tudos, spokesperson for the police service, says the organization is in the early stages of buying cameras.
An SIU investigation into a Durham police stop in February 2020 illustrates a potential weakness in police accountability rules when it comes to bodycam footage. According to the SIU’s report, special investigators requested footage from a subject officer’s camera as part of an incident that happened during an impaired driving stop in Oshawa. The police service initially refused to hand it over, citing the rules on subject officers’ notes.
The SIU went to court to have a judge review whether or not the footage fell under the rule. Before a decision, Durham police gave the SIU the footage, sidestepping setting any court precedent on the issue.
Durham’s spokesperson did not comment on the incident, but says the police service is still working on its policies on body-worn cameras. The SIU says police services and their members have a duty to comply with its investigations.
“Accordingly, when requested, body camera footage must be turned over to SIU investigators,” spokesperson Monica Hudon writes in a statement. “While there may be issues that need to be resolved in this area, such as the extent of the SIU’s entitlement to body camera footage of events after an incident has occurred, the SIU has to date received the footage it needs to assist in its investigations.”
The police force says it’s testing bodycams with officers at the airport and 22 Division in Brampton. A spokesperson for the service stresses that the cameras aren’t meant to be a quick fix for relationships with the people they are meant to protect.
“The objective of our Body-Worn Camera project is to improve overall community safety and well-being with one of the many focuses being on transparency, accountability and trust through the demonstration of our members’ professionalism,” states Const. Akhil Mooken.
Like Toronto, anyone directly involved in an interaction recorded by a body-worn camera can ask for the footage to be released under freedom of information legislation.
“There are some other limited circumstances in which footage may be released, in accordance with the law, including if it is determined that the release is in the compelling public interest,” adds Mooken. He adds so far, their cameras haven’t captured any use of force cases or allegations of misconduct.
Peel considers bodycam footage as supplementary to an officer’s notes, and Mooken says the force would turn over a subject officer’s camera footage to the SIU, if investigators ask.
Peel has a draft policy governing body-worn camera footage, which Mooken says has been shaped by community input.
“We continue to receive feedback about this important policy item from our members and the community and will provide further updates as we learn from the deployment.”
While York Regional Police does have in-car camera systems, the service doesn’t currently use body-worn cameras.