By Yvonne Sam
Social and Political Commentator
Between May 2016 and April 2017 the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) put in motion a policy to provide 78 police officers with body cameras, as a means of promoting police accountability, following public complaints over multiple cases of police brutality and murder.
The recommendation that Montreal‘s police officers sport portable cameras was proposed in June 2015, by coroner, Paul Dionne, as part of an investigation, following the death, on July 26, 2013, of Robert Henault.
In the conclusion of his report, the coroner further proposes that Montreal’s Public Security Minister, Lise Theriault, establish provincial guidelines, indicating when police officers should wear body cameras.
The trial was carried out for a seven-month period, during 2017, wherein the 78 officers were equipped with body cameras. Throughout this period, there were a total of 19 recorded incidents of use of force, of which the body cameras were turned on 13 times and only eight incidents were captured on film. According to the officers, having to turn on the camera, manually, before or during an emergency, creates unnecessary challenges for them on the job.
On February 1, 2019, Day 1 of the commencement of Black History Month, the SPVM presented a 215-page report to the City of Montreal’s Public Security Commission, which suggested that body cameras had virtually no impact on how police officers respond to a situation and conduct.
According to the SPVM, the cost was not worth the results, although only four percent of the force’s annual operating budget is required to implement the body cam program.
Incidentally, the cameras, used by the SPVM, were supplied by Axon, whose Senior Director, Stefan Schuman, reported, during a press conference, that there were other resources available in his company for the SPVM to work with, that could potentially improve the cost.
The report said outfitting police with body cameras would cost $17.4 million, over five years, and another $24 million, annually, to run, given the labour and equipment costs involved. Axon, has said the SPVM’s estimate is inflated.
In an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), Schuman said his company wants to sit down with the SPVM and re-examine the cost estimates. Much larger police forces than the SPVM are able to manage such programs at a fraction of the cost, he told CBC, after the meeting. Axon has outfitted police in cities ranging from Los Angeles to London.
A good try on a big lie for the Montreal Police Department, especially when a new and earlier study, conducted in 2014 by the University of Nevada, at Las Vegas’ Center for Crime and Justice Policy and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) found that body-worn cameras can accomplish substantial cost savings for police, by shortening the complaint resolution process.
A randomized, controlled trial of approximately 400 LVMPD officers were used, divided into two groups: a treatment group with body-worn cameras, and a control group without. At the expiration of one year in the trial, the number of officers with at least one complaint of misconduct had dropped 30 percent for officers with cameras, but only a 5 percent decrease for control officers.
Funded by the U. S Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice, the study set out to ascertain the effect of the relatively-recent technology on a variety of outcomes, linked to use of force, misconduct, and to make clear the cost benefit of the cameras.
Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department was one of the first police agencies in the United States to equip its officers with body worn cameras.
According to William Sousa, co-author of the study and Director of UNLV’s Center for Crime and Justice Policy, “The results of the study suggest that the cameras also have benefits, in terms of the reductions in police use of force and complaints of officer misconduct. Body-worn cameras demonstrate a police agency’s commitment to transparency and accountability.
To date, the Montreal 78 pales and fails alongside the U. S numbers.
In February 2012, the Police Department of Rialto, a small working class city outside Los Angeles, pioneered the use of body cameras on police officers in a randomized controlled study, which captured attention, because it offered scientific and encouraging findings.
The field experiment found that when the officers were outfitted with cameras, public complaints fell 88 percent, in comparison to the previous 12 months, and use of force by officers fell by 60 percent. Rialto also became an example for US forces, since a federal judge in New York praised its initiative. The findings also triggered national interest in the benefits that body camera could conceivably provide.
In the Canadian neck of the woods, 85 Toronto police officers tested lapel cameras in a 10 month pilot project, conducted from May 2015 to March 2016.The project, a recommendation of the Toronto Police use of force review that followed the 2013 police shooting of teenager Sammy Yatim, revealed significant problems, including problems with the battery life of the camera, which corrupted video files when it stopped in the middle of recordings.
The report, presented to the Civilian Oversight Board, found that despite the shortcomings, viz: a sample size so statistically small, that it was difficult to reach a conclusion on major issues, such as whether the existence of the cameras would cause the number of public complaints against officers to lower or whether officers would file fewer use of force reports, the cameras did ensure an unbiased, independent account of police/community interactions. Conducted surveys also found that 95 percent of the public and 85 percent of officers support the use of the cameras.
A further recommendation of Toronto’s police Chief, Mark Saunders, is that all of Toronto’s 3,200 frontline officers should be equipped with body cameras, though the “major challenge”, according to a new police report, would be the cost, at a time when the service is being asked to slash its budget.
Such a remark found strong community and officer support for the technology.
Currently, police body cameras are being used, around the world, from Australia to Uruguay.
In 2015 in response to the number of high-profile shootings of unarmed Black men by police, President Barack Obama pledged funding for a nationwide program to equip departments with body cameras.
Law enforcement agencies in 45 states and District of Colombia (DC), have received funding from the Department of Justice’s Body-Worn Camera Policy and Implementation Program, which spent over $58 million between 2015 and 2017.
A study, prepared for the National Institute of Justice, found that there are over 60 models of police body cameras available to purchase in the United States, and to date, 35 states have introduced specific legislation covering their use.
With the evidence at hand, why is the SPVM sticking its head in the sand?
Regardless of the cost of implementation, accountability measures should not matter, especially with the well-known history of every Montreal police being acquitted of, or not being charged for, the murder of racialized individuals.
Furthermore, Montreal police routinely stop people of colour for baseless checks, which often escalate into violence. Even the most myopic is blatantly aware of the use of racial profiling, especially against Blacks and Indigenous people. The multitudinous cases of continued police violence, present indisputable evidence that the SPVM constitutes a racist institution, and a power unto itself.
Montreal continues to reinforce and recognize the power of the police, as a form of necessary control. Beyond body cameras, the SPVM must be held culpable, while keeping in mind that body cameras are not the ultimate panacea for police accountability.
The clarion should be sounded, for the police to be better trained in non-violent de-escalation techniques, and to be de-centralized as universal first responders. It’s no sham, for in the absence of a body cam when encountering the police, Blacks still have a lot to fear— for face downward on the ground, their bullet-ridden bodies will soon be found.
Yvonne Sam, a retired Head Nurse and Secondary School Teacher, is Vice-president of the Guyana Cultural Association of Montreal. A regular columnist for over two decades with the Montreal Community Contact, her insightful and incursive articles on topics ranging from politics, human rights and immigration, to education and parenting have also appeared in the Huffington Post, Montreal Gazette, XPressbogg and Guyanese OnLine. She is also the recipient of the Governor General of Canada Caring Canadian Citizen Award.