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Police body cameras aren’t always bad news for accused, lawyers say

As body cameras for police become permanent in some New Brunswick communities, the new technology has become a mainstay in court proceedings — sometimes to the benefit of the accused and sometimes to their detriment.

More New Brunswick officers will be wearing cameras when interacting with the public

Closeup of male officers' upper chest, wearing a vest with a small black camera affixed to the vest.

As body cameras for police become permanent in some New Brunswick communities, the new technology has become a mainstay in court proceedings — sometimes to the benefit of the accused and sometimes to their detriment.

Last week, the Fredericton Police Force announced its six-year pilot program with body cameras was successful, and it equipped all of its front-line officers with the technology.

The Saint John Police Force plans a full rollout this summer. RCMP began testing body cameras this spring in three detachments, none in New Brunswick.

Fredericton police Chief Martin Gaudet said the cameras increase transparency, help gather evidence and protect the officers.

Two defence lawyers say that though police technology is meant to strengthen evidence gathered, it's not all bad for the accused. And sometimes, it doesn't even make it to trial.

An example is the trial of Matthew Raymond. He was found not criminally responsible for shooting and killing Donnie Robichaud and Bobbie Lee Wright, and Fredericton Const. Sara Burns and Const. Robb Costello, who responded to calls of shots fired in 2018.

One of the officers was wearing a body camera, but because Raymond had already admitted to the shooting, and the footage did not help explain his state of mind, it was not relevant enough to the issues at trial.

Defence lawyer TJ Burke says body-camera footage from the arrests of people charged with the first degree murder of Justin Breau in Saint John is playing part in the prosecution that's currently underway.

Burke and defence lawyer Gilles Lemieux said body-camera footage seems to make the biggest difference in impaired driving cases. This is because those cases rely heavily on the police account of how impaired the driver was acting.

"When you have a body cam, especially if there's sound, you can not only see the person having difficulty, but you can hear their speech," Lemieux said. "It certainly makes it more definitive."

Burke said this makes questioning the basis of the arrest more difficult, but it can be useful if the officer has not followed proper procedure or shows something that police testimony might not include.

"Sometime the evidence that a police officer describes in writing is not always the evidence that you see," Burke said.

"The visual of the body-worn camera sometimes is different than the way the police officer describes it."

In cases of dangerous driving, Burke said, camera footage can help get to the heart of the matter more quickly.

Before cameras, courts had to rely on officers' descriptions of how the alleged offenders were driving.

Now, judges can see with their own eyes. This way, lawyers can go straight into arguing whether the driving captured on camera was indeed dangerous.

"In this particular case, the use of the body-worn camera footage is useful to the defence and the Crown," Burke said. "It's not always a slam dunk case whenever there's body worn camera footage."

When officers become the accused

Burke also defends police officers when they become the accused. He said if they are accused of misconduct or assault when arresting someone, their own body camera footage would be key evidence.

"It's an officer safety tool," he said.

Even though it has some benefits to the accused, Burke said, just like any other policing tool, the cameras help the prosecution more than the defence. In New Brunswick, any charge police want to lay must first go through the Crown's office.

Before proceeding with a charge, prosecutors review all evidence in a case to decide if there's a reasonable prospect of conviction.

Information Morning – Saint John12:58B​ody cameras

The Fredericton Police Force has greatly expanded its use of body-worn cameras. ​Khalil Akhtar spoke to Police Chief Martin Gaudet about when​ and how they're used,

Burke said if body camera footage shows a police officer, during an arrest, failing to give someone the right to speak to a lawyer, for example, the Crown can decide against laying the charge, without that footage ever making it to court.

People are allowed to file a request to view body cam footage that shows their arrest, Gaudet said.

Lemieux said he doesn't see body cameras disrupting the way the justice system works. He said it adds accountability and like all technology, has its pros and cons.

Looking ahead, he said he does have some concerns about privacy, especially for people caught on the camera but not involved in the investigation.

Gaudet said the force has policies about privacy, such as turning the cameras off when entering a school or a hospital.

Burke said he has also seen an improvement in how well footage is edited to obscure personal information and the identity of minors.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hadeel Ibrahim is a reporter with CBC New Brunswick based in Saint John. She reports in English and Arabic. Email: hadeel.ibrahim@cbc.ca.

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