FAQ About Police Body-Worn Cameras

Written on behalf of Barrison Law
cobourg police camera

Increasingly, the public expects police to wear body-worn cameras and for their police departments to have a policy about when and how they can be used. The rise in calls for body-worn cameras reflects the public’s desire for more transparency from law enforcement agencies. In the spring of this year, the Cobourg Police rolled out its new body-worn camera program, and training on using the cameras was completed in June.

Below, we answer some frequently asked questions about body-worn cameras, including how they have affected policing in general, what happens when an officer intentionally turns their body-worn camera off during duty, and how this technology affects the public’s privacy rights.

What are body-worn cameras?

Body-worn cameras are small, portable, lightweight devices worn on the head or placed in a pocket. They can record audio and video, which is helpful when recording footage of a crime scene. Body-worn cameras are often used to record footage at the beginning and end of an officer’s shift for evidentiary purposes.

Why do police use body-worn cameras?

Body-worn cameras are a vital tool for law enforcement officers. They help protect both the public and police from false accusations and provide an objective record of what happened during a police encounter.

Additionally, body-worn cameras may prevent crime. When individuals know their actions are being recorded, it can change their behaviour. Studies have shown that individuals are less likely to commit crimes or engage in violent behaviour when wearing a body camera. The mere presence of a camera acts as a deterrent because it reminds people that their actions will be recorded and could potentially be made public or shared with prosecutors.

How do body-worn cameras affect police behaviour?

As mentioned earlier, the most common use of body-worn cameras is to record interactions with the public. There are many benefits to having a video record of these interactions. For instance, it helps protect police officers and citizens by providing evidence in cases where there may be conflicting accounts of what transpired. The footage can also help dispel false rumours or accusations that arise after an incident.

One reason body-worn camera footage has such value is that it reduces ambiguity surrounding an event, encouraging honesty and respectfulness on both sides. When officers know they are being recorded, it incentivizes them to conduct themselves professionally because their misbehaviour will be documented for all to see on tape (and perhaps result in disciplinary action). 

Similarly, civilians who know they may be filmed have less incentive to act disrespectfully toward police officers. If anything happens during an interaction with law enforcement that could be perceived as suspicious — even if it didn’t appear so at first glance — the footage can resolve any doubts about what transpired.

Can officers turn off the camera when it’s recording?

Generally, the officer should not turn off the camera when on duty. Officers can only turn off their body-worn cameras when they are off duty and away from work, such as at home or taking a break during their shift. The same goes for any restroom or changing clothes breaks; these situations do not require recording because there is no police activity.

Is every interaction with police automatically recorded on a body-worn camera?

No. The body-worn cameras are not always active. Police officers have the discretion to turn the camera on and off, which means that every interaction with police is not necessarily recorded on a body-worn camera. For example, if an officer is having a private conversation with another officer or citizen, they might choose to turn off the camera if it would be inappropriate to record the interaction. Similarly, police may decide not to activate their body-worn cameras in sensitive situations where recording could compromise privacy or safety (for example, during medical emergencies).

Do police need to notify me that they are wearing a body-worn camera?

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada has recommended that police be required to notify an individual that they are wearing a body-worn camera. This means that the officer should tell you that the encounter is being recorded when they arrive on the scene. If this happens, make sure to ask the officer for their name and badge number.

If at any time during your interaction with law enforcement officials, including during an arrest or traffic stop, one of them informs you that they have activated their body-worn camera system but does not explain further (i.e. does not tell you that “everything” is being recorded), this could be considered a violation of your rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

What are the privacy implications of body-worn cameras?

As with any technology, there are privacy concerns. While there may be some risk that body-worn cameras could violate the privacy of individuals in both public and private places — for example, if footage of someone entering a home without permission is uploaded to an unsecured server — they can also bring greater transparency to law enforcement actions.

Contact Barrison Law in Oshawa for Advice on How Surveillance Technology Impacts Your Case

At Barrison Law, our knowledgeable criminal defence lawyers advocate for clients’ Charter rights in a wide range of offences, including drug chargesassault, weapons offences, and murder/manslaughter charges. We help clients at all stages of the criminal justice process, from arrest to bail hearings to trial.

Barrison Law is conveniently located just steps from the Durham Consolidated Courthouse. We proudly serve all of Durham Region, including Oshawa, Whitby, Ajax, and Pickering, as well as the surrounding communities, including Cobourg, Peterborough and Lindsay. Our team accepts cases on private retainer and Legal Aid and offers 24-hour phone service. To schedule a confidential consultation on your criminal law matter, call us at 905-404-1947 or reach out online.