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Body cameras in, then out, of Abbotsford Police budget

Chief Mike Serr says force reflects city’s diversity
Police in many American jurisdictions wear body cameras, but Canadian forces have been much slower to follow suit. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

As the spotlight grows on police accountability and racism, there have been calls across Canada for officers to wear body cameras.

But between last spring and this February, the Abbotsford Police Department (APD) quietly shelved plans to buy body cameras for their patrol officers. It was the second time money budgeted to buy body-worn cameras had been reallocated.

Advocates say such cameras can deter officer misconduct, while providing evidence when allegations of police abuse are made. The chief of the Toronto Police, which has been criticized after a 29-year-old Black woman fell to her death after an encounter with officers, said last week that he would be fast-tracking the process to get cameras deployed.

But other studies suggest the cameras might not change police behaviour substantially.

In an interview Tuesday, APD Chief Mike Serr cited privacy concerns and the cost to store footage as two factors in his department’s decision to back off buying the body cameras.

“It has been taken off our plans for now,” he said.

In its March 2019 budget, the city and the APD had allocated $1 million for body-worn cameras, to be spent in the 2020-21 fiscal year. But this February, when details of the newest city budget were hammered out, the money for the body cameras was gone.

The city’s five-year budget in 2015 had forecast spending a similar amount on body cameras in 2018. That also never came to fruition.

Serr pointed to “significant” privacy concerns regarding the cameras, particularly for victims of crime and when it comes to entering homes. Even if privacy issues were resolved, Serr said the cost to store footage “is a very significant investment.”

“We will always re-evaluate,” he said. “We will look to other police agencies. Not all police agencies have had positive responses to the body-worn cameras.”

The province’s Independent Investigation Office of B.C., which probes police-related incidents that injure people, has previously said body-camera footage could be useful in its investigations.

But a major 2017 study suggested the cameras did not significantly change the frequency at which police officers used force. Last year, the British Columbia government released new standards for how body cameras should be used, but didn’t make them mandatory for forces. In a statement to The News, a government spokesperson pointed to the inconclusive studies and the cost of the cameras to explain why the cameras weren’t being mandated.

“The standards do ensure that any agency choosing to deploy body-worn cameras will do so in a consistent manner, with an appropriate balance between privacy and accountability,” the spokesperson wrote.

“These were drafted after extensive consultation with key stakeholders such as a BCACP, Police Union, Pivot Legal Society, BC Civil Liberties Association, Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, the Criminal Justice Branch and the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner.”

The cameras have been used to hold officers accountable when they do overreach. Over the weekend, police shot and killed a Black business owner in Louisville, Kentucky, under unclear circumstances.When it emerged that officers had not turned on their body cameras, the chief of police in the city was fired.

Serr said his department has worked to try to avoid the pitfalls that other forces have encountered.

“In our hiring, we truly want our police department to reflect our community and reflect the diversity of our community. We’ve done training on fair and impartial policing. I recently took the training myself and it is very valuable for all our officers to understand biases and perceived biases, just to know that we treat everyone with respect.”

Serr noted the province had set rules for when and why police can stop people without having witnessed an actual criminal or ticketable offence. The practice, called “carding” in many jurisdictions, has been shown to often discriminate against people of colour, with police stopping them much more frequently than whites – even when the person has no history of wrongdoing.

Serr said he was reassured by the results of a review into so-called “screen checks” in Abbotsford about a year ago.

“For us, what was very encouraging, was they were very reflective of our community. There was no demographic, there was no portion of our community that was checked disproportionately.”

The News has requested a copy of the review, along with demographic information on the diversity of the APD.

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