Body cameras, TPS’s biggest response Sammy Yatim shooting, wouldn’t have prevented his death

Image description: A close-up shot of a Toronto police officer, from chin to mid-torso. Attached to their uniform just below the shoulder is a small black camera with a forward-facing screen. (Image credit: TPS)

Image description: A close-up shot of a side-facing Toronto police officer, from chin to mid-torso. Attached to their uniform just below the shoulder is a small black camera with a forward-facing screen. (Image credit: TPS)

As you’ve no doubt heard if you live in Toronto, James Forcillo, the cop who shot and killed Sammy Yatim on a streetcar in 2013, was found guilty this week – not of murder, but of attempted murder.

It’s a sad but true fact that no cop has ever been convicted of murder in Ontario, and many legal observers expected that, given the legal system’s built-in lenience towards killers in uniforms, Forcillo was likely to get off scot-free. It’s better than nothing, a lot of folks are saying. At least he was found guilty of something.

While I see where this argument is coming from, it feels defeatist to me. It feels like it gives up too easily, resigns itself to a certain level of police brutality and impunity.

James Forcillo murdered Sammy Yatim. He had a vast variety of options at his disposal short of shooting and killing the disturbed teenager, and he tried literally none of them. Sammy Yatim’s death was tragic, senseless, entirely unnecessary. In finding Forcillo not guilty on a charge of second-degree murder, the jury was essentially saying that his actions were justifiable. That this is possible, that we aren’t able to legally hold police to higher standards than the general population, is a travesty.

As for the precedent this trial sets, it’s hard to say. Police union president Mike McCormack is convinced that it will have a chilling effect on officers, will make them more hesitant to act in volatile situation, will make us all less safe. There’s a lot of bullshit in the way he’s spinning that, but maybe it’s true that cops will feel slightly less trigger-happy knowing that they may actually face (gasp!) consequences.

To date, the most significant consequence of the Yatim shooting is the implementation of a few key recommendations made by an inquiry into his death by Frank Iacobucci, a retired Supreme Court justice. One of these recommendations was the use of body cameras by frontline Toronto police officers, and a pilot program was launched last May.

In this article, I argued that body cameras are a solution in search of a problem (in that we don’t lack for footage of abusive cops, taken by civilians or surveillance cameras or dash cameras), that they are problematic and prone to abuse, and that body cameras do literally nothing to address the actual root causes of police brutality.

This article originally appeared on The Alfalfafield on May 15, 2015, under the title “TPS’s new body cameras: tamper-friendly, a privacy nightmare, and a private-sector cash grab”.

The rhetoric of the police apology is highly distinctive.

More often than not, the apology never happens, of course, because police forces are great at not acknowledging police brutality or corruption or lawbreaking. The victims become the perpetrators, and the thin blue line is all that stands between all that is decent and the depraved anarchist thugs.

Occasionally, though, some cop does something so brazen and unforgivable that the force must respond publicly, and when they do, they do their utmost to throw the perpetrator under the bus.

One hears of bad apples, and of tireless service, and of how most cops are really great people; while “mistakes were made”, nobody particularly high-up or important made them; and if you just for God’s sake trust us, things will work out better next time.

After Sammy Yatim, a distressed teenager with the world’s tiniest switchblade, was murdered on a Dundas streetcar two years ago by a cop who had so many other options at his disposal, we heard these same tired slogans and excuses and empty promises, from police apologists in the press and from TPS spokespeople.

But there was a lot of disbelief in the community. After so many years and so many deaths, that “Trust us” rang pretty goddamn hollow.

I attended a rally at 14 Division headquarters in the week after Yatim’s death. I’ve attended many many marches in my three years in Toronto, and never – ever – have I seen an angrier crowd than I did that day. Marching up narrow Dovercourt Avenue, hundreds of people were scream-chanting “Mur-der-ers! Mur-der-ers!” and howling abuse at the clearly-frightened line of bike cops barricading the entrance.

And out of that outpouring of anger and grief and righteous rage, there was action, of a sort. The following summer, a report by Frank Iacobucci, a former Supreme Court justice, made eighty-four recommendations to TPS on how to better deal with people in crisis. Then-chief Bill Blair vowed fast action to implement the recommendations.

Today, another year gone, TPS announced it was moving forward with one of them.

From the CBC:

Toronto police unveiled the body cameras 100 of its officers will wear  to gain an “unbiased, accurate account” of interactions with the public.

The cameras — which part of a pilot project launched in the wake of several incidents, most notably the 2013 shooting death of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim on a TTC streetcar — will be worn by officers attached to four different units who have been trained about how to use them.

The cameras will not record constantly, but rather will be turned on and off by officers at the beginning and conclusion of their official encounters with the public.

Which, when you get right down to it, is like saying, “Trust us.”

Trust that they’ll turn them on when they’re supposed to.

Trust that the chain of custody of the video and audio will be free from tampering.

Trust that when they say there’s a body-cam “malfunction”, they don’t mean it with scare quotes at all.

The problem is that body cameras don’t actually solve any problems. James Forcillo, the police officer who shot Sammy Yatim eight times with nine shots from close range when Yatim was all alone on a streetcar that was literally surrounded by police, knew full well that there were both police and civilian witnesses, that there were surveillance cameras, that there could be bystanders filming the event.

He knew all this and yet Sammy Yatim is dead.

Body cameras will do nothing to prevent incidents like this.

This is because body cameras are a technical solution to non-technical problems. The police culture of violence, the arming of all front-line officers, the militarization of police forces, the use of police as frontline caregivers for people in crisis, the controlling and psychiatrized attitudes towards distressed individuals – body cameras do literally nothing to address any of these issues.

They do, however, cost a lot of money.

[Staff Superintendent Tom] Russell also outlined some of the features of the three types of body cameras that will be used, which range in price from around $600 to $1,000. The pilot project will evaluate the pros and cons of each, in the event that police choose to expand the program, Russell said.

If TPS was to outfit all of their officers with these cameras, it would potentially cost them over $5 million. And who is all this money going to?

TPS’s own FAQ (PDF) indicates that they’re testing out three different types, from Panasonic, Integrys, and MediaSolv, which was just recently purchased by TASER International.

TASER, you may recall, was the 90s’ answer to police murders, a “less-than-lethal” weapon that would help to clear up all the bad press around “police-involved deaths”. They and other police-gear manufacturers stand to make a killing (pardon the extremely poor-taste pun) on rolling out a whole new generation of superfluous must-have gear.

There are also obvious privacy concerns with the cameras.

Although TPS has official policies regarding how recordings will be handled and stored and how personally identifying information will be used, let’s be real. This is the force that steadfastly refuses to acknowledge that carding is systematically racist and discriminatory, the force that ran the totalitarian G-20 debacle, the force that is responsible for the deaths of dozens of mentally distressed individuals over the past two decades.

We’re supposed to believe that they’ll follow their own internal rules at all times, and all of our information will be safe, and no officer will abuse this technology?

At the heart of the matter, this announcement is a distraction. The solution it proposes is to a problem that doesn’t exist.

The problem isn’t that we don’t know how cops are treating the public. We do.

The problem is that the culture of entitlement and violence and abuse at the heart of most modern police forces needs to be rooted out. And another fancy expensive piece of high-tech robocop gear isn’t gonna help solve that problem at all.

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