Body-worn cameras could build ‘trust, public support’ Thunder Bay police pilot project finds

Body-worn cameras (BWC) could help restore trust in the Thunder Bay Police Service (TBPS) and have become a necessary piece of equipment, the northwestern Ontario city’s police board was told Tuesday at its monthly meeting.

“It’s almost like a second set of eyes that are objective, so if there’s ever any question about what occurred during that interaction, it’s clear and obvious for everybody to see,” said Sgt. Gordon Snyder, the operational manager of the five-month-long BWC pilot project, which concluded in April.

“At the end of the day, the police service is nothing without the support of the public, we need public support to be able to prevent and solve crimes. To have that support, we must have trust and if this is a way that the public will continue to build trust in our service, and policing in general, then I think it’s a fantastic tool that we should be using.”

‘Could see cultural shift’ throughout pilot project

Building trust and accountability, frame by frame and video by video. Thunder Bay police have wrapped up a pilot project where select officers were wearing cameras. The sergeant in charge of the project is recommending that every officer wear a camera. 7:32

Snyder heads up the traffic unit, which was selected to test the devices, in part because of the number of interactions those officers have with the public.

He said initially officers expressed some apprehension about wearing the cameras, which were mounted either on the head or on glasses.

Thunder Bay police Const. Michael Dimini shows the video feed captured by a body-mounted camera during the launch of the pilot project in November, 2018. (Kris Ketonen/CBC)

“If suddenly you had to have a camera attached to your body throughout your entire work day and you were being watched or critiqued, anyone would have a little bit of resistance to that, or questions in regards to the rationale behind that and some nervousness,” said Snyder.

However, officers soon became so comfortable with the cameras and accustomed to using them that “you could see the cultural shift and change that occurred within these officers to the point where the body camera project was completed, they had a hard time adapting back.”

‘Excellent de-escalation tool’

The cameras also seemed to have a calming affect on some people who were acting violently at the time of their arrest “and so I think it works on many levels. The person knows they’re being recorded. The officer knows they’re being recorded and it’s an excellent de-escalation tool as well,” said Snyder.

Under a clear protocol, written for the pilot project, the officers were instructed to activate the cameras during every interaction with the public, but they could be turned off while at the station, or in areas where privacy is expected, such as the washroom or a crowded hospital emergency room, he said.

As soon as the recording was completed, it was saved and uploaded to a secure cloud-based storage system, where it was managed by supervisors, “so officers don’t have any ability to make any changes or redactions or do anything with that original file, and it’s all encrypted data so nobody else can get into that data and make any changes either.”

Cameras allow more ‘transparency, accountability’

Snyder said police forces across North America are putting a “significant focus on transparency and accountability and what better way to address those concerns than to have a body-worn camera in place to allow officers to show exactly what they’re dealing with on a daily basis and why they make the decisions they do and act in certain fashions.”

The cost of operating the cameras is a significant hurdle however, said Snyder, noting not only are they expensive to purchase, but managing the data – such as redacting sound or blurring faces of bystanders when the recording is to be used in court – will also require more people, time and storage space.