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Here's Why Montreal Police Still Don't Have Body Cams

Politicians seem to agree on body cams for police. Is it finally going to happen?
Here's Why Montreal Police Still Don't Have Body Cams

In a meeting on December 9, 2020, the Montreal City Council voted down an amendment that would have funded body cameras for Montreal police officers. The defeat of the proposal — by a vote of 34 to 27 — was just the latest turn of events in the years-long, zigzagging effort to make the cameras part of the SPVM uniform.

Now, in the wake of the wrongful arrest of Mamadi Camara, supporters of the measure have once again renewed calls for additional police accountability. Here's a complete history of the political evolution of the proposal, and where it could go from here.

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When did Montreal first consider body cameras for police officers?

The SPVM began its first body camera pilot project in 2016.

The initiative saw metro, traffic and neighbourhood patrol officers test out cameras made by Axon Public Safety Canada Inc.

"In order to better protect both the population and our police officers, we must, as a responsible metropolis, seriously consider the solution of portable cameras," then-Mayor Denis Coderre said at the launch of the pilot.

Then-SPVM director Philippe Pichet supported the project, suggesting body camera videos could serve to counter viral footage from witnesses of police altercations.

"Over the past few years, we have seen several videos of police interventions that have made citizens react," he said.

"Except that these videos did not always show the entire intervention. There was almost always only one side of the coin."

"Portable cameras will make it possible to show another angle of police interventions."

What was the result of the Montreal body camera pilot?

In a January 2019 report, the SPVM concluded that "the experience of the project did not unequivocally demonstrate that portable cameras promote the transparency of police interventions."

The report claimed that the cameras had "little impact" on police interventions, though it noted that members of the public who encountered participating officers generally felt the cameras "[were] a good thing and that they [provided] a sense of security, or even extra protection, for both the police officer and the citizen."

Police also argued that body cameras could serve to "weaken the bond of trust between the population and the organization, or even the justice system" if ever there were footage of a highly publicized event that investigators did not release to the public, for investigative purposes, for instance.

Finally, and perhaps most critically, the SPVM attached a $17.4 million price tag to a large-scale deployment of body cameras in the police force, plus an additional $24 million per year.

Axon, for its part, seemed to dispute these estimates, saying in a statement submitted to Montreal's public security committee that "false ideas" about price were based on "outdated studies."

Ultimately, however, the city government decided not to move forward with body cameras. Mayor Valérie Plante made the announcement at an executive committee meeting on February 6, 2019, citing, in part, the projected costs.

"We can't sweep it under the rug, it's a major investment," she said, also mentioning perceived shortcomings in the technology used in the pilot.

"The investment would be worthwhile if we were guaranteed that the technology was there. [...] But that's not the case."

What has happened since then?

Calls for Montreal police officers to wear body cameras peaked again during the surge of racial justice protests that began in spring 2020 following the police killings of, among others, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

One petition to make cameras mandatory amassed over 150,000 signatures.

On June 2, 2020, as Montrealers took to the streets to call attention to systematic racism in the city, Mayor Plante said the city hoped to work "as fast as we can" to continue conversations with the provincial government to implement body cameras for the police force, though she didn't give a firm timeline.

The opposition in City Hall, meanwhile, has consistently pressed the administration to adopt body cameras.

Lionel Perez, leader of Ensemble Montréal, said Plante's call to shelve the project in February 2019 was the "wrong decision for Montreal and the SPVM."

Later that year, in light of a report that identified "systemic bias" towards racial minorities by the SPVM, the party once again urged for the adoption of portable cameras.

In a November 2019 statement, City Councilor Abdelhaq Sari, opposition spokesperson for public safety matters, stated that "Mayor Plante has refused to defend Montrealers' interests and bowed to the SPVM's arguments without realizing the impact this will have on all those who denounce racial profiling."

"Montrealers are in favour of body cameras. They've been proven. They are known to contribute greatly to modifying behaviours by both sides during a police action," he continued.

"Given the troubling data contained in the report on police stop-and-checks and racial identities, we need concrete solutions to curb racial profiling within the SPVM."

In February 2020, Ensemble Montréal publicly demanded that the city introduce body cameras for officers by 2021.

What happened at the December 9, 2020 Montreal City Council meeting?

Perez and Sari proposed an amendment to the city's Ten-Year Capital Investment Plan that would have diverted money from the Réseau express vélo — a signature project of the mayor's party — for body cameras.

In a December interview with MTL Blog, independent City Councilor Marvin Rotrand, who voted in favour of the amendment, bemoaned that opposition to the cameras hinged in part on the SPVM's predicted cost for their implementation — a cost the councillor claimed is "ten times higher than what it would cost in Toronto."

"The evolution of the technology means that the cost argument is no longer valid," Rotrand said, further charging that "there's no political will for the majority party to do this."

What effect has the Camara case had on the body camera movement?

Montrealer Mamadi Camara was wrongly arrested following an attack on an SPVM officer on January 28, 2021. He was released from detention six days later on February 3, in light of new evidence that exonerated him.

Just days after his release, Ensemble Montréal once again made a formal call for the implementation of body cameras, arguing that the technology would "help avoid arbitrary arrests."

"It's time to stop playing games!" Lionel Perez declared in a statement.

"For two years we've been asking the Plante administration to act on this matter; each time, all we've gotten are excuses."

"Body cameras have unanimous support; we just have to pull our heads out of the sand."

Mayor Valérie Plante, meanwhile, still says she supports the measure, but added in comments on February 8 that "it's about making sure that this time is the good time, so we don't spend money on something that doesn't work [...] as it should."

The mayor referenced the need to ensure that body camera footage could hold up in court, a prerequisite that the technology in the 2016 pilot project did not fulfill, she has previously explained.

"I don't have hesitations towards the body cams or buying them right now, but the point is, it has to work properly," she told MTL Blog.

The mayor said she has been discussing body cameras with the provincial minister of public security, Geneviève Guilbault, and that the Government of Quebec has expressed willingness to support a camera project.

"We want it. We want it as soon as we can," Plante concluded.

Ensemble Montréal plans to table its own motion calling for the "immediate permanent implementation of body-worn cameras on SPVM officers" in a city council meeting on February 22.

"We're not giving up until the Plante administration gives in," Perez said.

"Montrealers of every origin must feel protected from police repression in their city. The tragic events of recent days involving Mr. Camara demonstrate that action is needed now, for the good of us all."

"We're done accepting lame excuses and empty promises from Valerie Plante."