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Montreal Police Serious About Accountability and Transparency? Re-introduce Body Cameras

Montreal Police Serious About Accountability and Transparency? Re-introduce Body Cameras

By Yvonne Sam
Contributing Columnist

Yvonne Sam -- newIn his report on the death of Robert Henault, a 70-year-old man, who was shot dead, during a police intervention in 2013, Coroner, Paul Dionne, recommended the use of body cameras, by the police.

At the time Montreal Mayor, Denis Coderre, said the cameras would help protect, both citizens and police officers, in an era, where nearly everyone is armed with a cell phone video camera.

“We need to be in tune with the times and, as we can see, the times have clearly changed,” Coderre said, contending that the cameras would give a more complete sense of events. In the company of Montreal’s police Chief, Philippe Pichet, the Mayor further intimated that the pilot project could, very likely, become something “permanent”. www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/montreal-police-get-body-cameras-1.3586842

On May 1, 2016, the pilot project was launched. Seventy-eight patrol officers wore the cameras, for nearly a year, in a real work context, from May 2016 to April 2017. The initiative was the first of its kind in Quebec. Officers would be trained to know when to turn the camera on, or off, during police operations. While they would be able to view the videos they recorded, officers are unable to modify or delete them. spvm.qc.ca/en/Fiches/Details/Portable-Cameras–Pilot-Project-For-Police-Officers.

After the yearlong trial, the Service de Police de la Ville de Montreal (SPVM), concluded that body cameras present operational and logistical challenges, in addition to leaving the wearers with a feeling of being under surveillance. The year-long pilot project cost $1.5 million.

At an executive meeting, on February 6, 2019, Montreal’s current Mayor, Valerie La Plante, openly voiced her decision, not to provide Montreal police officers with body cameras, saying the devices would be too costly for the city.

“We heard the pros and the cons, but our position, at this time, is not to go ahead with body cameras,” she said www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/montreal-police-no-body-cameras-plante-1.5007697.

Commentary LogoThe 215-page report, presented to Montreal’s Public Security Committee, outlined the cost of outfitting all 3,000 patrol officers with body cameras, at $17.4 million, over five years, and a further $24 million, annually, given the involved labour and equipment costs.

According to Axon, the company that provided the SPVM with body cameras for the pilot project, the SPVM’s estimate is inflated. www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/montreal-police-body-cameras-1.5001814.

Axon’s Regional Manager for Canada, Stefan Schurman, notified the public security committee that costs are far lower than described in the report, and also the fact that video processing is not as time consuming as the Mayor suggests.

Additionally, he said his company wants to sit down with the SPVM and re-examine the cost estimates. www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/montreal-police-body-cameras-1.5001814

The SPVM has not even sat down yet, and the game is about to change. What will be their next move, seeing that they are already out of the groove? The problem of affordability would soon come face to face with reality, as the future of policing changes you see.

Axon, the body camera maker, has released a new camera that can be activated by an officer’s gunshot and is capable of streaming live video. Such a feature would be of great concern to Montreal’s “boys in blue”, as they have already expressed concern, regarding their feeling, of being under surveillance, when using the body cam.

On February 17, 2020, with the addition of 1,000 new Axon cameras, Cincinnati became the first American city to roll out police body cameras, with live-streaming capabilities. securitytoday.com/articles/2020/02/24/cincinnati-police-become-first-city-to-install-body-cameras-with-live-streaming-capability.aspx

This system is specifically devised to allow dispatchers or commanders to view an emergency situation, in real time, or find an officer, who has become lost or hurt during the incident.

Axon the largest supplier of police body cams in the U. S., claims that the system will be activated, whenever it detects a gun has been drawn, a gunshot is heard, or a Taser is turned on. This feature of live streaming is not exactly new.

Plainly put, if the Montreal Police Department wants to see tangible improvements in officer-community relations, then live-streaming cameras should be seen as one step in a broader series of reforms, supporting accountability and transparency.

In 2016, Visual Labs, a smaller company, founded by Stanford University computer science graduates, provided the same livestreaming, but lacked some of Axon’s features. Now being used in a handful of U. S police departments, it is an Android app that permits policemen to live-stream from their department-issued mobile phones. The company calls itself “the first body camera company that doesn’t produce a camera”, according to its chief operating officer. www.vice.com/en_us/article/9a3ddv/visual-labs-police-body-camera-livestream.

The new cameras will film in 1080 progressive scan, and be equipped with software that allows the officers to obtain transcripts of the audio in the footage. Absent from the cameras will be facial recognition capabilities, but will have “face detection” software that will grant officers to skip to parts of the video where people are present. The large amount of footage will be stored in a computing cloud, maintained by Axon and Microsoft. Cincinnati police plan to limit who has access to the live-streaming capabilities and where the footage is stored.


As part of an “Officer Safety Plan”, Axon is packaging the new body camera at a cost of $200 per officer, per month. Included in the bundle, is the camera, equipped with four microphones for greatly-improved audio, the software for the camera and its footage, unlimited storage space in the Axon cloud, a Taser weapon and unlimited Taser cartridges. Axon also makes Tasers, the electronic weapon that launches two darts connected to the Taser and uses the electrical circuit to temporarily disable a person. www.fool.com/investing/2019/07/26/axon-shows-progress-selling-new-products.aspx

It should be pointed out that livestreaming does not mean it will be done publicly. In the police world, when cops talk about live-streaming, they mean live-streaming, back to headquarters. In other words, a video, being recorded by an officer, can be viewed, in real time, by someone — the officer’s chief, perhaps —  located elsewhere.

Like any other facet of policing, live-streaming police video is fraught with positives and negatives. On a positive note, livestreaming can make policing safer and efficacious, if a police is considering the use of force, it would be helpful to have a superior in his/her ear. First on the scene of a crime in progress, are police officers, and having the ability to access the camera, in real time, is amazing. It would be a tactical advantage in high-stress situations, like an active shooter, for the dispatcher can watch and deploy other officers if deemed necessary.

On the converse, body cameras go into sensitive places. With streaming, it would not be just the officer, but somebody else. Hence, there must be serious limits, as to whom the video is streamed.

It is apparent that the service de Police de la Ville de Montreal has some serious catching up to do, if it is to keep up with current technology, as it relates to crime fighting. Body cameras will not single-handedly improve police accountability, as research has shown that they are only as successful, as they departments, in which they are implemented.

Plainly put, if the Montreal Police Department wants to see tangible improvements in officer-community relations, then live-streaming cameras should be seen as one step in a broader series of reforms, supporting accountability and transparency.

The fact that the camera activates — when a weapon is drawn, or when a sound is received, through the Shot Spotter gunshot-detection technology — should cause more shootings to be recorded.

Officers sometimes do not have time to reach for their body-camera button, during a fast-moving incident, but now, it will turn on automatically. This is certainly great comfort, and if officers are out on the beat, they know that someone can find them, if they need to.

Citizens should know that officers are being held accountable.

To the Mayor of Montreal (Valerie La Plante), the Head of the SPVM (Sylvain Caron), Minister of Public Security (Genevieve Guilbault), Head of Police Brother (Yves Francoeur), please open the door and recommence the discussion once more.

Madame Mayor inflating the cost would be the citizens’ loss. Not only will the live-streaming cameras protect people, who make legitimate complaints, but the technology will also protect the police, from allegations of the use of excessive force.

To quote Police Chief, Robert White, after ordering 800 cameras for the Denver Police Department, “The only officers, who would have a problem with body cams, are bad officers”. African-American activist, Rosa Parks, said, “You must never be fearful about what you are doing, when it is right”.

So to the boys in blue: cast aside your fear, and show the community you truly care.

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.

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