In Toronto the subject has been a topic of discussion following the July shooting of Sammy Yatim on a streetcar. Wouldn’t it be handy, the theory goes, to be able to see what a police officer could see before they fired their gun, or check the tape after someone complains about a cop’s actions?
The answer to that question is an unequivocal yes.
If police officers wear cameras that are foolproof – if they are reliable and can’t be switched off by the officer and files can’t be deleted afterwards – the evidence captured by a lapel camera could be critical if a crime is captured or an officer is shown to have acted above the law.
We first saw cops with cameras when dash-mounted video recorders were invented. They provided an opportunity to review the scene from a cruiser’s front seat and provided evidence for prosecutions along with hours of entertainment on syndicated redneck cop shows.
We’ve dealt with CCTV cameras in banks, stores and other public places for decades. And research has shown that when people think they are being watched, they behave better. Adding cameras to police uniforms is a natural progression, one we should take advantage of now that miniaturization allows it.
In Canada, the key phrase regarding privacy is whether or not someone captured on camera had “a reasonable expectation of privacy.” If you’re in a bathroom, a changing room or your own home, a camera would be considered unreasonable. Outside those places, you have no expectation of privacy because people can see you, so you’re fair game for videotaping.
A lapel-mounted camera on every police officer would also serve to remind cops that they have no expectation of privacy while at work. They are public servants, paid by us to keep us safe.
In effect, a wearable recorder protects two groups: the officer from complaints about their work and the public from being mistreated. There could be a considerable cost-savings too, as flippant complaints about police conduct should dry up given that a recording of interactions between officers and members of the public are documented.
And the best video deterrent of all is a camera that’s blatantly obvious. If cops are going to wear cameras, it makes sense to have officers wear a distinctive label or button that advises the public that video and sound are being recorded.
Maybe a tag that reads “Smile: everyone’s watching.”
Image: AP Photo/Jeff Chiu