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Durham police one step closer to being equipped with body cams

$1.2 million pilot project for cameras set to launch in June as DRPS await budget approval

A pilot project to equip 80 DRPS officers with body cameras is set to get underway in June and see officers from platoons in Pickering and Ajax equipped with the devices along with some members of the Traffic division and the Festive RIDE campaign. (Photos courtesy of Axon, Scottsdale, AZ, USA)

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

The Durham Regional Police are only a few short months away from a pilot project that will see officers equipped with body cameras in an attempt to judge the effectiveness of the technology for the police force moving forward.

According to A/Sgt. Jason Bagg, the project manager for the DRPS body-worn camera (BWC) project, the police service has set a target launch date for June of this year to begin equipping officers with cameras. The pilot project will include approximately 80 officers from platoons in Ajax and Pickering, along with some members of the Traffic Enforcement Unit and the 2018 Festive RIDE campaign. The project will come with a $1.2 million price tag.

The launch of the project comes nearly a year after the DRPS presented to the police services board about the scope of the project. However, at that time, the cost of the project, and concerns from the Crown Attorney’s office delayed the start of the initiative.

“Following that meeting, we met as a team and our command team and leadership groups and sort of reevaluated our timeline based on those considerations,” Bagg says.

In terms of cost, regional chair Roger Anderson at the time noted that it would be better to split the $1.2 million cost over two consecutive budget years, meaning $600,000 of the project could come from the 2018 budget and $600,000 from the 2019 budget.

From the Crown’s office, new Supreme Court rules around the length of time for certain types of court cases, had them concerned about the impact of the amount of video evidence created from the BWCs and the ability to move that evidence through the justice system in a timely fashion.

Now, Bagg says the DRPS is ready to take things to the next stage, and begin using the BWCs in the field.

In terms of background, work for the BWC project has been ongoing since 2014 and over the course of the first three phases, which included background research and a public survey, the goal has been to determine if the BWC would provide value with respect to accuracy and the quality of evidence, the level of trust in the community toward police and enhancing accountability.

“It’s not simply an equipment test,” Bagg says. “We’re not just getting model A of the camera and deciding if we like it. It’s measuring the impact of some of those key measures.”

Those key measures being the practical impacts of the BWCs, like the effect on evidence gathering and the sharing of disclosure in the courtroom, as well as some not so easy to measure impacts, like trust and accountability of police officers in the community.

“It’s a very wide range and a lot of those metrics are challenging to measure,” Bagg states. “How do you measure trust and accountability? So, that’s one of the pieces we’re trying to capture.”

And while a myriad of research and studies have been completed on BWCs in North America, particularly in the United States, many of the findings drawn on their effectiveness are inconclusive. That result was recently seen with a pilot project in Toronto, where Toronto Police Service, following a year-long pilot project found little impact on the apparent ability of BWCs to reduce use-of-force incidents between police and members of the public. The Toronto Police Service Board recommended moving forward with procuring the cameras anyway.

“It may be challenging to draw any significant conclusions,” Bagg admits, but countering with the fact that the only way to determine the path forward to equip officers with BWCs is to carry out the pilot project.

With that said, many residents of Durham have previously noted a desire to see their police officers equipped with the technology. A study completed by the DRPS noted strong support for BWCs in Durham.

As part of the initial phases of the BWC project, a public survey was conducted both online and through random phone calls to allow DRPS to test the waters on how the people of Durham Region felt about BWCs. In total, 2,274 responses were received through the online survey and the results were clear.

Nearly 80 per cent of Durham residents said they supported the use of BWCs, while 76 per cent said they believe the cameras would create increased police accountability and 80 per cent of people believe they would provide better evidence.

And not only that, nearly three-quarters of people surveyed (73 per cent) supported an increase in the DRPS budget to pay for the cameras.

According to Bagg, the same sentiment is shared by the police officers themselves, who aside from the new work and additional training, have no issue with wearing the camera.

“The general consensus is that our officers aren’t doing anything wrong, and in fact, in many cases, they’re doing everything right. So, there isn’t an opposition to wearing the cameras from that perspective,” Bagg says. “But, like anything else, change is sometimes difficult, we resist change, it’s something new and certainly the cameras bring additional work…so that’s the concern.”

The large part of that additional work comes in the cataloguing of the footage at the end of a shift, which an original report noted could take two hours, and come with an approximate cost of $400,000 in overtime pay during the course of the pilot project.

The infrastructure for that video footage is also starting to come together ahead of the project implementation.

Using an already existing partnership with Axon Public Safety, one of the largest vendors internationally when it comes to BWCs, the DRPS will take advantage of a program the company is offering, that will provide BWCs and video management software at zero cost for a one-year project.

Since 2016, DRPS have been using Axon’s platform for their CCTV footage and other video evidence. With the introduction of BWC footage, Bagg says they’ll be able to assimilate the evidence into that platform quite easily.

“It’s going to increase the volume in that process, but we already have an idea of how this is going to work,” he says.

With training set to get underway in March for the frontline officers involved, a 28-hour program, the DRPS are currently working to finalize the terms of use and other criteria for the BWCs, such as when they should be turned on and off while officers are on duty.

“I think it’s always sort of going to be in a developing process,” Bagg says of the usage terms, noting the DRPS have relied heavily on guidelines established by Toronto police. However, they’ve worked to localize some aspects of the program.

“We’ve relied very heavily on that and we’ve worked very closely with our Crown partners to make some sort of more Durham-specific revisions,” he says.

In the end, the DRPS hope to come out the other side of the BWC pilot project with a cost-benefit analysis to inform whether to implement any full time program.

And while the pilot will focus on the cost impacts, the public impact factors are also top of mind, Bagg says.

“It’s really not about the cameras, and we’ve maintained this from the outset. It’s about how we use the cameras,” he says. “We’re not engaged in a camera test, it’s how are these cameras going to change the interaction between our officers and the community, for better or for worse, and measure that.”