As friends and family gather to mark the one year anniversary of Sammy Yatim’s death, a report released by former Supreme Court judge Frank Iacobucci suggests that Toronto police officers should be equipped with body-worn cameras in order to “ensure greater accountability and transparency” between police and citizens.

The report, which was commissioned in response to public outrage following Yatim’s shooting death on a downtown streetcar by a Toronto police officer last July, includes 84 recommendations aimed at improving the way police interact with mentally ill citizens and the use of lethal force.

While many of Iacobucci’s recommendations, released Thursday, focus on the need for mental health training for officers, including the use of police psychologists in the recruiting and training phases, the idea of equipping police officers with body-worn cameras is one that has gained traction in recent years.

Over the past decade, several police departments across Canada, the U.S., and U.K. have toyed with the idea of using the technology in order to improve police transparency and curb use-of-force.

Police say body-worn cameras increase transparency, decrease complaints

Since 2009, police departments in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Montreal have all launched pilot projects testing the effectiveness of body-worn cameras on police officers.

The cameras, which are about the size of a smartphone and can be mounted on an officer’s shoulder, cap or lapel, are activated when an officer is dispatched to investigate an incident or leave their patrol car to speak to a civilian.

The footage is automatically transferred from the officer’s camera and uploaded into a locally-based device or cloud-based system managed by the police department.

Experts say equipping officers with body-worn cameras helps protect both the officer and the public by improving police accountability and provide valuable video evidence of encounters between officers and citizens that can protect officers from false allegations.

One of the best examples of the effectiveness of body-worn cameras comes from Rialto, California, where police officers were equipped with body-mounted cameras as part of a year-long study conducted by Cambridge University back in 2012.

During the course of the study, the Rialto Police Department saw an 88 per cent decline in the number of complaints filed against police officers and 60 per cent decline in incidents of use-of-force.

Rialto Police Department Chief Tony Farrar noted that the cameras served as a valuable tool that not only helped to improve police professionalism across the force but also decreased legal costs related to investigations and trials as a result of a police complaint.

In 2012, the Calgary Police Service launched a similar pilot project within its department – deploying 50 cameras across the police force, including patrol members, K9 unit and gang suppression team.

Officials say the cameras captured close to 2,700 videos over the course of the year, 30 of which were used as evidence in court cases involving police. The project was such a success, that Calgary police announced plans to expand the program and equip all uniformed police officers with cameras starting in 2013.

Supporters of body-worn cameras say the devices could also speed up the criminal justice system, since suspects may be more likely to plead guilty or withdraw complaints if they know they’ve been caught on camera.

Critic point to privacy concerns

While the use of body-worn cameras has drawn praise from experts and police officials around the world, critics and civil advocacy groups have raised concerns regarding the privacy implications of footage captured by such devices.

The Victoria Police Department drew criticism from the B.C. Civil Liberties Association back in 2009, when several police officers there were assigned body-worn cameras as part of a pilot project.

Critics questioned the government’s right to surveil citizens, arguing for the protection of individual privacy rights.

Others have questioned where such video evidence will be stored, and how long police departments will have access to the footage.

Police say they have taken precautions to ensure that civilians are made aware of the cameras. Officers equipped with body-mounted cameras in Edmonton were required to alert citizens when they were being recorded. The police were also prohibited from recording crowds when out on patrol.

Another key concern raised by critics is the ability of officers to turn their cameras on an off depending on the situation and the possibility that officers may turn off their cameras during an unflattering incident or investigation.

Some have suggested deploying a system where the police cameras remain on at all times so that officers do not have the ability to turn off their devices at will.

Experts on both sides of the argument agree that the use of body-worn cameras should be accompanied by strong guidelines that outline concerns surrounding when and how a police officer can record interactions with citizens.

While Toronto police currently do not equip their officers with body-worn cameras, Police Chief Bill Blair has approved the launch of a pilot project that is expected to roll out later this year.