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Where’s the transparency with an inactive police body camera?

Recent incident in Toronto underscores need for independent authority to review all use of force incidents, body camera footage

Canadian Politics

Still image from a video showing Toronto Police officers pulling their firearms on rapper Twy Korchinksi Beals after he had finished shooting a music video. Screenshots via Twy Korchinksi Beals/Instagram.

A short, one-minute and twenty-two second bystander video of Toronto Police with their guns drawn has gone viral on Instagram. At the time of writing, the video has been viewed more than 75,000 times in little more than 48 hours. The officers in the video are seen wearing body cameras but it is not clear whether the cameras were activated during the entire encounter. In a statement, a Toronto police spokesperson said the bystander recording “appears to be a partial video of a fuller response.”

The video was recorded by Twy Korchinksi Beals, whose sister Regis Korchinski-Paquet fell from her apartment balcony to her death while Toronto police officers were in the unit in May 2020. Former Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders called for the expedited rollout of police body-worn cameras following Ms. Korchinski-Paquet’s death.

The recording shows one officer pointing a handgun directly at Mr. Korchinski Beals after he had finished shooting a music video, and another officer to the side pointing a military-style assault rifle. After a brief verbal exchange, the officer holsters her handgun. Mr. Korchinski Beals then approaches the officer with the assault rifle, physical contact occurs between the two, and the officer smirks while a skirmish ensues with coarse language. A third officer intervenes, and the video abruptly ends.

The recording is alarming and raises some serious questions about use of force tactics, as well as police transparency and accountability, issues that body-worn cameras were supposed to address. According to the Toronto Police Service (TPS) board policy, when officers “draw a handgun in the presence of a member of the public,” use of force has occurred. If the drawing of a handgun constitutes force, then one can reasonably assume that wielding an assault rifle does also.

While police claim that questions concerning the use of force in situations like this could be answered with body-worn camera footage, it appears that the cameras on the officers with their guns drawn were not activated during the entire encounter—in fact, the blinking red light that indicates an active body-worn camera was absent when their guns were drawn.

According to TPS, the cameras are to be turned on “prior to arriving at a call for service.” Furthermore, according to a Toronto Police spokesperson, officers responded to the scene with the belief that “people were seen with guns.” This seems like a situation where police concerned about transparency would be certain to arrive with their cameras activated.

Two seconds before the video ends, the officer with the assault rifle appears to activate his camera—a beeping noise is audible and flashing red lights appear. The camera of the officer who intervenes appears to be activated, as is now the camera on the officer who had holstered her handgun. At no point in the recording do any of the officers appear to notify the public that they are being recorded, as per their training. Perhaps this occurs after the video ends.

Toronto Police Service owes the public some answers.

First, TPS must be compelled to address when and how the cameras were activated, and why exactly the cameras do not appear to have been turned on prior to the use of force incident. To do otherwise would be counter to building trust and legitimacy with the community, a rationale of the $34 million Toronto Police body camera program. Second, TPS needs to provide an explanation for how we can expect body-worn cameras to contribute to transparency and accountability in circumstances like this one, and in others that the public is not aware of.

This incident further underscores the necessity of an independent third-party, non-police body with the authority to review all use of force incidents and body camera footage.

Citizens should continue to record the police and share their videos on social media. Bystander recordings of use of force, including videos as brazen as the one recorded by Mr. Korchinski Beals, bring immediate attention to police behaviour, offering transparency and accountability in situations where the public cannot expect the police will necessarily share camera footage, let alone activate their body-worn cameras.

Christopher J. Schneider is Professor of Sociology at Brandon University and author of Policing and Social Media: Social Control in an Era of New Media (Lexington Books, 2016).

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