Winnipeg Police Chief Danny Smyth has proposed a $10 million bodycam pilot project to the 2022 police budget. The proposal follows recent Statistics Canada data indicating only one in three Manitobans ‘strongly trust’ the police. Contrary to popular belief, body cameras are not a solution to Winnipeggers’ lack of trust in police and their safety concerns because body cameras don’t actually reduce police violence or the systemic culture of racism embedded in policing. Bodycams are a non-objective, technological response to systemic problems. By implementing body cameras, we would expand an already bloated police budget.
Body cameras are a technological response to a systemic problem
Technology has become a commonly proposed lifeboat to save us from many plaguing, systemic issues like the unnecessary use of force, racism, and extra-judicial executions by police officers. Advocates themselves admit that body cameras are not a silver bullet yet remain steadfastly convinced the technology is an incremental solution to police violence. Body cameras are thought to address police violence by serving as tools police can use to collect the video evidence necessary to hold officers accountable when they unnecessarily use force.
Studies across North America show no consistent evidence that body cameras reduce police violence or improve oversight and transparency. A pilot project in Montreal found body cameras to have little impact on police interventions. A Harvard study found that cameras did not meaningfully change police behaviour on a range of outcomes. As the trial for ex-Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin continues this week, we are reminded that Chauvin’s body camera did not prevent him from killing George Floyd.
Cameras are often assumed to be objective devices, giving us an unbiased view into police behaviour. But videos are not inherently objective. They cannot provide context to a situation caught on camera and are perpetually interpreted (and reinterpreted) by the viewer. Unlike civilian recordings, the lens of a body camera is not focused on police officers, instead they are pointed at us. Body cameras are more a tool of citizen surveillance than they are a mechanism of transparency because their lens deliberately leaves officers out of frame.
Tools like body cameras have never been objective instruments. Their use (and misuse) lies in the intention behind the hands that use them. Counteractively, the ability to hold police departments accountable through body cameras often depends on access to information and video footage protocols that are set by the very same police departments. Even when departmental policy dictates officers must keep their body cameras on at all times during a call for service, police officers have still been caught turning their cameras off. Claims that body cameras improve transparency are undermined by systemic problems in the institution of policing itself. Exemplified when police continue to hold discretionary power over access to footage and camera use protocols as well as their unfettered ability to rely on their colleagues for protection. In fact, police officers and supervisors in Albuquerque were caught altering and deleting body camera footage of a police shooting in 2014 to protect a fellow officer. Arguments that body cameras will allow us to hold police accountable overlook the immense power of the 'blue wall of silence.' which refers to the known culture of silence within policing when officers do harm. Technology such as body cameras cannot address the expectation of loyalty behind the badge.
Body cameras narrow conversations about why citizens distrust police and how police officers can cause harm: an officer doesn’t need to be within camera shot to betray public trust. For example, in July 2020, city councillor for Point Douglas Vivian Santos was denied a position on Winnipeg’s Police Board after the Winnipeg Police leaked private information. Implementing body cameras will not reveal the anonymous police sources who leaked information that ultimately denied a city councillor from one of Winnipeg’s most over-policed neighbourhoods a seat on the police board. Even if body cameras were effective evidence-collecting tools they could only address the tip of the iceberg in terms of police misconduct, leaving unaddressed the lack of transparency in municipal police governance decisions that occur behind closed doors.
Questions can be raised about the legitimacy of the Winnipeg Police Service’s (WPS’s) commitment to transparency when in 2020, the Canadian Association of Journalists condemned the Winnipeg Police for interfering with a journalist procuring a video from a witness to a police shooting. This came after a similar incident in 2015 when WPS confiscated a camera and footage belonging to Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN). Alarm bells should be ringing when the police consistently interfere with bodycam, civilian, and journalist video footage. Police are only invested in transparency if it means adding another tool to their belt and more money to their coffers.
Bloating the police budget
The WPS budget sits at over $302 million before capital-related expenditures, about one-third of the city’s total annual budget. WPS has actively resisted calls to cut the police budget by at least 10% to reallocate public spending into starved community services. Green-lighting a body camera project amidst a deluge of evidence that they serve little to no effect on police violence or increasing transparency would only further bloat an already overblown police budget. The WPS budget has almost doubled since 2008 and is projected to continue to rise in the coming years. Whereas libraries have been forced to cut back operating hours and transit has reduced service on 14 lines due to budget rollbacks, body cameras fail to improve access to public spaces, educational resources, and active transit - things necessary for Winnipeg to be a healthy, safe, and thriving place to live.
We cannot fix policing through new technology because the problems are embedded in the founding principles of policing itself: to protect private property by enforcing colonial control. We cannot add any tool to an officer's belt to change the systemic problems baked into policing. It is particularly ironic to consider funding for body cameras a resolution to issues caused by growing police power, presence, and surveillance in our lives. When we remember that policing in so-called Canada originated to appease white settler-colonial anxieties by patrolling and controlling Indigenous people and their land, we can better understand that no technological device that police can manipulate and use at their own discretion will save Winnipeggers from police violence.
E. R. Gerbrandt (She/They) is a white settler Ph.D. student, writer, and community organizer for anti-sexual violence and transformative justice initiatives. They work and live on Treaty 1 (Winnipeg) and Treaty 6 (Edmonton) land.