The Plague-Ground – Take your picture, mister?

Back in 2007 some Apple engineers fiercely resisted adding a camera to the new iPhone. “Who would ever take a picture with their phone?”

It seems of the 1,436,300,000,000 digital photos and videos shot this year, enough of them are of Black people and members of minorities being shot by police. Or suffocated. Or merely brutalized.

In fact, it’s digital cameras that have sparked a wave of civil dissent that’s almost as viral as the pandemic that’s kept us off the streets. Until last week when the world poured back onto the streets. As Saturday’s New York Times headlined it: “Huge Crowds Around the Globe March in Solidarity Against Police Brutality”.

If someone hadn’t videoed George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, or Ahmaud Arbery’s shooting in Atlanta, or the Inuk man being run over by the RCMP, nobody would know of these outrages. Oh sure, some by-standers would know. But knowing and telling and being believed by people in authority are distant galaxies when you’re Black or Indigenous.

I’m all in favour of the calls to end systemic discrimination. You won’t change your actions until you change your attitude.

But what we need now, aside from reviving the better angels of our nature, is more cameras. Not really more cameras for us who aren’t in the police or military. Twenty-five years ago, there were no SmartPhone users. Today, there are 3.5 billion. But more cameras for the very people they catch in the act of bullying, beating and killing people who get in their way.

So, how many Toronto Police officers wear body cameras?

Not one.

Both Police Chief Mark Saunders and police union head Mike McCormack are in favour of using them. But it will cost some $80 million over 10 years to ‘arm’ every officer with a body camera.

Hold on, isn’t that $8 million a year over 10 years? Out of an annual police budget of $1.076 billion? Gosh, that’s just 0.74 per cent of their budget this year.

Now that the word ‘defunding’ has threatened the steady rise of police budgets across North America, perhaps Toronto’s police can start by moving some of the 99.26% of their budget around to find new funds for body cameras.

The 20,000-member RCMP have also run two pilot programs for body cameras, but decided against using them in 2016 “until such time as available technology can meet its specific operational requirement.”

In fact, there’s a whole host of issues we have to face if we’re to move from no police wearing body cameras to all police wearing them. These include technology’s eternal stand-byes, the unintended consequence and its cousin, the unknown-unknown.

Obviously, body cameras are more than a budget issue. They’re an ethical, legal, surveillance issue – and a mechanical one as well.

Because body cameras have to be “on” in order to record anything. And the number of times officers have turned them off is reliably shocking in these past weeks.

But can we just please move faster to make this happen?

It seems Chicago already has. Mayor Lori Lightfoot warned: ” Officers who choose to … to tape over their badges, or to turn off their body-worn cameras – all things that violate very clear directives of the Chicago Police Department – if you are one of those officers, we will find you, we will identify you, and we will strip you of your police powers. Period.”

I’m not saying digital cameras – whether in the hands of citizens or the police – will halt rampant racism and needless deaths.

What I do hope is that, just as technology made digital cameras possible, perhaps it can make them operable as well, by taking the decision to push ‘record’ out of the hands of the recorder.

Now there’s a use for Artificial Intelligence that beats playing better chess.

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6 thoughts on “The Plague-Ground – Take your picture, mister?”

  1. Jamie Laidlaw

    I like it. I find myself wondering about the prospects of the ubiquitous injury to the body politic of hacking. I worry because what we know as the public must be a fraction of what CSIS knows which is a fraction of what is going on. When a body is assaulted by the constabulary that body becomes a political body. The record the camera provides makes the assault irrefutable. How many times have I watched the 75-year-old peace activist being pushed and hitting the pavement then seeing blood trickle from his inert body? Maybe five. The whole scene is so abhorrently violent and careless I found it hard to fully comprehend until the video footage had worn ruts in my brain.

    I recall the experiment thirty years ago with renewed community policing and found the results very appealing. How does trust build without interaction over time? We will need to build people up as well as defend them but this will be a forever journey. Aren’t they all.

    1. Jamie — I agree; there are dozens of issues surrounding body cameras. But none are so large — at least by what we know now — to keep
      them from being used universally. Cheers. Bob

  2. Well said, Bob, and I concur with the need and justification for body cameras… even on a police force (Toronto’s) that most of us believe is efficient, fair, and generally benign. I’m surprised Mayor Tory hasn’t picked up on this.

    1. I’m with you, Jim, on John Tory’s reticence on this issue. But it feels as if body cameras will be like seat-belts.
      The auto makers fought them tooth and nail, claiming they’d drive up the cost of cars and that nobody would comply.
      But now they’re second nature. Thanks for checking in. Cheers. Bob

  3. Angela G Granziera

    The book ‘Without Sanctuary, Lynching Photography in America’ depicts some unspeakable horrors in American history from the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s. Documented with a Kodak camera. Distributed as postcards. Justice taken into the hands of white people, torturing mainly innocent and mostly black people. Parents allowed their children to take the day off school to watch. The crowds demanded more than hangings as time went on so lynchings became tortures and bar-b-ques. The book is by James Allen, Hilton Als, Congressman John Lewis and Leon F. Litwack. Film forges freedom. May we never go back to those unjust, grim, horrific, ignorant and inhumane times. May there be peace for all beings.

    1. Angela — Anything written by Hilton Als, I’ll pic up and read. Thanks so much for the recommendation. I see you’re in Honey Harbour. We’re just down the bay at Thunder Beach. A lovely day! All the best, Bb

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