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Expert doubts body-worn cameras will increase Vancouver police accountability


There's little reason to believe body-worn cameras will increase accountability or transparency among Vancouver police, according to an expert who has followed the implementation of the devices across Canada and the U.S.

Christopher Schneider, a sociology professor at Manitoba's Brandon University, has published several peer-reviewed papers on body-worn cameras, and said there is "inconsistent" evidence that the devices reduce the amount of force used by police or the number of civilian complaints against officers.

"Could body-worn cameras work? I think we could take steps in that direction," Schneider said. "The actual evidence suggests they don't work, at least in the way they're being utilized now."

While some controlled experiments have found use of force decreased when officers were wearing the devices, others counter-intuitively found use of force actually increased, Schneider said.

"We need to be honest with ourselves when we talk about body-worn cameras," the researcher added. "Largely it's being used for the benefit of the police."


On Thursday, the Vancouver Police Department launched a pilot project to equip 85 officers in the downtown core and east side with body-worn cameras for six months.

At a news conference, Deputy Chief Howard Chow said his department has been advocating for body-worn cameras for years, and that authorities hope the program will both "enhance public trust" in law enforcement and "protect officers from false or vexatious complaints."

Chow said the department consulted with numerous stakeholders, including two B.C. police watchdogs, Indigenous groups, LGBTQ2S+ groups, and the province's privacy commissioner when deciding how to implement the devices.

Authorities ultimately chose to keep the cameras dormant until an officer activates them.

"We appreciate that some people in our community may feel uneasy about being recorded," Chow said. "We've reached a balance that protects people's rights and their privacy."

But letting officers decide when to use the devices defeats much of the reason for using them, Schneider argued.

"If the police can turn off the camera, or turn it on using their individual discretion, this in essence negates any serious conversations about police accountability," he said.

The cameras do continuously pick up 30 seconds of video when dormant, and that short video is saved once an officer activates the device – though there is no sound on that portion of the recording.

Videos will then be held for 13 months before they're automatically deleted, unless they contain evidence of a crime or if there is a pending complaint against an officer.


Under the Vancouver Police Department's guidelines for the pilot project, officers "shall" activate their cameras whenever they have a "reasonable belief" they will be using force, or whenever a suspect is expected to be "violent or aggressive" – but there are currently no repercussions for officers who fail to do so.

Determining how to handle those situations is one of the aims of the pilot project, Chow said.

"It's going to be a learning process," he added.

Schneider acknowledged there are circumstances when an officer should be able to turn their camera off – when interviewing sexual assault victims, young offenders or police informants, for instance – but urged authorities to consider serious consequences for officers who abuse their discretion, up to and including termination.

In many jurisdictions, the repercussions for switching the devices off are much less serious than they would be for using excessive force, Schneider said, which he argued incentivizes misuse.

"Maybe they get docked a day's pay," he said. "They get in trouble but it's mostly inconsequential."


Authorities have confirmed officers will be allowed to review recordings while documenting police incidents and preparing reports for Crown counsel.

Schneider said this gives police an opportunity to "get their story straight" following a contentious incident involving members of the public, and before a matter reaches trial.

"It gives police an advantage in controlling the narrative about a particular incident," he said.

Meanwhile, civilians who are recorded must file a Freedom of Information request – a process that is notoriously plagued by delays – in order to view video of their interactions with police.

"Is that really consistent with transparency?" Schneider said. "I would argue no."

In order to ensure body-worn cameras provide a public benefit, Schneider suggested the public be involved in shaping the police department's policies.

"Allow the public to define what 'accountability' means, allow the public to define what 'transparency' means, and allow the public to contribute to the development of policies and regulations and rules surrounding the use of the body-worn camera devices," the researcher said. Top Stories

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