Toronto Police body cameras raise privacy concerns
Published Tuesday, May 19, 2015 12:40PM EDT
With 100 Toronto police officers now sporting body cameras on the job, some citizens are voicing privacy concerns over how their personal information will be recorded, viewed and stored after encounters with law enforcement.
The Toronto Police Service launched its one-year, $500,000 body camera pilot project on Monday, sparking concerns among privacy groups over the use, safety and security of footage recorded by officers on the job.
Executive Director Sukanya Pillay of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association says body cameras can be a "good thing for accountability," but they raise a number of questions that need to be addressed as part of the pilot project.
"We have to make sure that privacy rights are protected," Pillay told CTV News Channel on Tuesday.
Pillay said there must be strict controls on how footage is recorded, stored, flagged and accessed in order to protect citizens captured on film. "Strict protocols have to be in place in order for it to serve the function of accountability," she said.
Earlier this week, Toronto Police Association President Mike McCormack said there are still "lots of little intricacies" to iron out in the body cam project, but the cameras are meant to increase transparency and trust between police and members of the public.
"We need the public trust and policing trust to get our job done," McCormack told CTV News Channel on Monday.
Pillay praised the Toronto Police Service for introducing body-worn cameras as a pilot project, with a full evaluation expected to take place after the one-year term. Her organization has already raised privacy concerns with the police and hopes to be part of the one-year evaluation when it comes up, she said.
"The evaluation should have teeth," Pillay added.
The 100 officers who will wear body cameras are drawn from the TAVIS Rapid Response Team, Traffic Services Motor Squad, Primary Response Unit at 55 Division and Community Response Unit at 43 Division.
The Toronto Police Service has set up a Frequently Asked Questions page to address many of the privacy concerns raised over body cam use. The majority of those concerns involve when the cameras will be switched on, who will be recorded and how the data will be stored.
So what impact will body cameras have on members of the public?
Essentially, an officer wearing a body camera will arrive on the scene and inform people that the camera is rolling at the first reasonable opportunity, the FAQ says. Uniformed officers will also wear a patch to show they are wearing a camera. The officer is expected to focus the camera on individuals who are involved in the case, but bystanders may be recorded during the course of an investigation.
If you're interviewed by a body cam-wearing officer, video and audio will be recorded on the lapel-mounted device and stored on an inaccessible drive. The footage cannot be viewed, edited or deleted in the field, meaning you can't ask the officer to see what's been recorded.
Pillay said it's important for officers to tell people when the cameras are on. She also voiced her concern about the "potential for surveillance on ordinary citizens going about their business."
According to the FAQ, bystanders are permitted to ask an officer about the camera. However, they cannot see what has been recorded, and must file a request through the city to gain access to the footage.
Recordings are stored on the body cam until the end of an officer's shift, at which point they are uploaded to a secure police server at the officer's division or unit. The FAQ says only TPS Video Services staff are permitted to edit or vet the footage.
That's one of the sticking points for Pillay, who questioned how police will regulate access and use of the footage. She also wondered how police will keep the footage from being shared between government agencies or posted publicly to YouTube.
"Appropriate vetting and editing of body-worn camera data will be done for disclosure purposes," the FAQ says.
The footage is stored for at least a year, but may be retained longer if it is part of an ongoing investigation or court case.
Individuals can request permission to view the footage through a special application. "Any request to view or edit the data must be made through the relevant provisions of the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (MFIPPA)," the FAQ says.
Police will only switch off the camera when an investigation is completed or when the situation is deemed irrelevant to the case, the FAQ says. The officers have been trained on how to handle the cameras in sensitive situations, such as those involving children, sexual assault or individuals who are in a state of undress. That doesn't necessarily mean the cameras will be switched off, the FAQ says. Rather, officers will be required to follow special procedures.
Pillay said she still has questions about when the camera is activated. "Does the officer have discretion to turn the camera on and off, or will it be running all the time?" she said.
In court cases, body camera footage will be part of the "full and fair disclosure the Crown Attorney is obligated to provide the defence," the FAQ says.
The Toronto Police Service is fielding questions about body cams through email at BWC.FAQ@torontopolice.on.ca, or on Twitter using the hashtag #TOCopCams.
Individuals who encounter police wearing a body cam are invited to fill out a survey online.