A body-worn camera on a Durham, Ont. police officer. Photo: Twitter/Durham Police Credit: Twitter/Durham Police

The city’s board of police commissioners wants to wait at least a year before putting body-worn cameras on Halifax Regional Police officers.

At the board’s meeting on Monday, it voted unanimously in favour of a motion from Coun. Lindell Smith to ask the police to develop policies for the use of the cameras, along with a privacy impact assessment, and come back to the board next year, for implementation in the 2022-2023 budget year.

Smith, who was also elected chair of the board at Monday’s meeting, argued there could be negative ramifications of moving ahead too quickly with the cameras.

“I am fearful of what body-worn cameras could be perceived to do and not actually deal with the issues that we want to deal with when it comes to racism, etcetera,” Smith said.

At the board’s last meeting, police brought forward a plan to implement body-worn cameras this year. The initial costs would total $890,000 in fiscal 2021-2022, and over the first five years, they’d be $3.71 million.

Finding that first report lacked research to back up the cops’ claim that body-worn cameras would “provide benefits to the community” and “enhance police transparency, public trust and accountability while also improving operational effectiveness,” the board asked for more information, along with policies for the use of cameras.

HRP wrote that report, citing reports from other police forces and academic research and concluding that “It is unreasonable to expect [body-worn video] to be a silver-bullet solution to a wide range of issues, but the overall weight of evidence suggests that [body-worn video] can have some positive effects, especially around resolution of complaints against police officers.”

The report also notes that researchers have found the cameras “do not address underlying issues related to systemic racism, and serve to re-focus attention on only the specific situational factors of specific instances of police response.

“From this perspective, the use of [body-worn video] could exacerbate racial tensions around policing, if for example the use of [body-worn video] does not lead to concurrent improvements in equity in police treatment and outcomes. Returning to the questions of the effectiveness of [body-worn video], very little is known about whether [body-worn video] deployment has any impact on systemic racism or improved outcomes for racialized groups and individuals.”

Commissioner Carlos Beals argued the board should move ahead with the cameras.

“My opinion is that, you know, Black people are accustomed sometimes to be met with force and hostility when they’re interacting with the police, whereas their white counterparts are typically met with compassion and understanding,” Beals said.

“So knowing that an officer’s conduct is being recorded makes me feel that they will start to treat Black folks with respect. This I think will hopefully give the public some calmness and a feeling of comfort knowing that their interactions with police are being recorded. And when we talk about enhancing public confidence and trust, I truly believe that this is a step in the right in the right direction.”

The report to the board also included a policy framework based on the work of an Ontario-based researcher.

Under the proposed framework, the cameras wouldn’t record continuously, but during “all calls for service, and any other interactions with the public where officers may ask for personal information (such as traffic stops).”

“If a video is not recorded when one should otherwise have been, officers will be required to report all reasons why the camera was not used,” the report said.

Chief Dan Kinsella said officers would be well-trained on when to record, and the department would regularly check to make sure they were following the policies.

Halifax police would keep the videos for at least 13 months, and longer if it’s related to any “offence, investigation, or complaint.”

The videos would “not be used as part of media releases or released to members of the general public or media except in the most serious situations (such as a serious crime or missing person incident where [body-worn video] footage may hold essential information),” the report said.

The report suggested the footage would only be available through freedom of information request “by a person who appears in, or whose personal information is otherwise found in, a video.”

Insp. Greg Robertson, HRP’s FOIPOP coordinator and the lead on the body-worn camera project, said anyone visible in the video would have to approve of its release through freedom of information, though he also said it could be blurred to protect privacy.

For Smith, the work done so far isn’t enough to make sure the cameras are a good use of the budget.

HRP wanted to buy the cameras, and then build the policy around them. Smith’s motion on Monday seeks to flip that process.

He wants a full set of policies associated with the cameras, along with public consultation and a privacy impact assessment, then the board will consider approving the inclusion of cameras in the budget for 2022-2023.

Halifax regional council will also have to approve the capital budget costs associated with the cameras, $795,000 in the first year.

Smith said he’d be willing to approve an increase to HRP’s 2021-2022 operating budget for staff to do the necessary policy development work. Kinsella said he’d consult with staff and bring any additional request to the board’s budget meeting on Jan. 28.

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Zane Woodford is the Halifax Examiner’s municipal reporter. He covers Halifax City Hall and contributes to our ongoing PRICED OUT housing series. Twitter @zwoodford

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