From George Orwell to George Floyd: The shift in thinking about police use of body-worn cameras

Jul 07 2021

So much has changed since the mid-2000s when the idea of police wearing body-worn cameras (BWCs) was first contemplated. At that time, there was widespread public outcry, fueled by fears that we were marching ever closer to the fictional surveillance state of George Orwell’s 1984. In recent years, there has been a remarkable shift in public attitudes towards the use of this technology by police. We are currently in the midst of a global movement calling for greater transparency and accountability of police services in the wake of much-publicized civilian deaths that have occurred during encounters with police.

With a view to addressing this notable shift in public sentiment and advancing our strategic priority of Next-Generation Law Enforcement, today the IPC released a model governance framework for the use of body-worn cameras by police. The framework builds on earlier guidance for the use of body-worn cameras by law enforcement authorities issued by the federal, provincial, and territorial privacy commissioners in 2015. It was further informed by our office’s consultations with the Toronto Police Service and its oversight board as they prepared to launch their full BWC program earlier this year.

The model governance framework is aimed at helping Ontario’s police services design effective BWC programs that support their public safety objectives while respecting fundamental rights of the communities they serve. Specifically, the governance framework aims to enhance transparency and accountability of police-civilian encounters — including use of force by police — while at the same time ensuring that the public’s reasonable expectations of privacy will be protected from the unwarranted gaze of the state in both private dwellings and public spaces.

The framework starts with the basic proposition that BWCs should only be used to capture specific investigative or enforcement-related incidents involving direct interactions between police officers and members of the public. BWCs should not be used secretly nor constantly turned on as instruments of mass or generalized surveillance.

The framework also calls upon police services to articulate, and commit to, guiding principles, including the use of BWCs in a manner that:

  • is necessary and proportionate to the purposes of the program, clearly defined
  • is transparent and accountable to the public
  • upholds the integrity of the criminal justice system and the administration of justice
  • protects individuals’ rights to information and privacy
  • treats everyone fairly and equitably
  • respects the inherent worth and dignity of human beings

Among some of its key aspects, the framework strongly encourages the use of privacy impact assessments (PIAs) to identify and mitigate risks, and provides guidance on what to consider when selecting equipment vendors. It sets out clear rules for when to record and when not to record, encouraging sensitivity in special situations when the privacy and dignity of individuals are at stake, while limiting police officers’ discretion to otherwise deactivate or block cameras at whim. It limits the use and disclosure of BWC records, and requires their secure storage and destruction upon expiry of applicable retention periods. It encourages transparency of BWC records in response to access to information requests, as well as proactive release in the public interest. And, most importantly, it sets out extensive documentation, auditing, and public reporting requirements to fulfil the transparency and accountability expectations of the program.

Aside from the content of the model framework, the process leading up to its development has been highly instructive. Our office undertook months of intensive work with the Toronto Police Service and its board who were ahead of the pack in the planning and implementation of their pilot, to deployment of their full BWC program. Through this boots-on-the-ground experience, our office was able to gain a fuller appreciation of the important public safety goals, as well as the many practical considerations at play when implementing a BWC program. Lessons learned from this more granular exercise, enriched by the valuable perspectives of civil society, human rights groups, and leading academics, have led to a more informed and better balanced result than would have been the case had our office tried to develop this model governance framework alone in a vacuum.

We hope that this model governance framework will be useful to other Ontario police services as they plan and/or implement similar BWC programs to enhance their public safety objectives, and help ensure a consistent level of rights protection across the province in accordance with Ontario’s access and privacy laws.

BWCs are no cure-all but they can, if used properly, help foster the transparency and accountability that citizens have come to expect of their police officers, without crossing the boundaries of individual privacy and the basic tenets of human dignity. I encourage police services and oversight boards that are considering the use of this technology by front line officers to adopt this model governance framework as one step towards establishing a stronger relationship of trust and respect with their respective communities.

I am confident that this framework provides a potential path forward for the responsible use of BWCs by police. It will be paved by people working together with mutual commitment to enhancing transparency and accountability, while protecting privacy and other fundamental human rights.

Patricia

 

This post is also available in: French