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First Nations chief calls for police-worn body cameras as he awaits answers on his arrest caught on video

 More than a year after his violent arrest by RCMP officers in northern Alberta was caught on video, there has been no resolution for Chief Allan Adam.

The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation chief was arrested in the early morning hours of March 10, 2020, after a Wood Buffalo RCMP officer in Fort McMurray, Alta., pinned him to the ground and beat him, leaving his face bloodied.

"It was not justified for them to come flying into [me] and start beating me up for no reason," he told Cross Country Checkup.

Adam was later charged with resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer, but following the publication of RCMP dashcam footage by CBC News, the charges were dropped in June 2020.

Without that video, which triggered public outcry and initiated an ongoing investigation by the civilian-led Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT), Adam says he believes he would have ended up in court on the charges. Adam has yet to speak with ASIRT, saying that "if someone gets assaulted or somebody assaults someone, it is up to the RCMP to conduct an investigation."

Proponents of video recording by police, including with body-worn cameras that film a civilian's interaction with officers, say it's a way to hold law enforcement accountable.

But 13 months after Adam's arrest, no one has been charged and the investigation is still open.

The video "doesn't necessarily reveal that more surveillance, more visibility, is a good thing," said Kevin Walby, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg who has studied the usefulness of police body cameras.

RCMP dashcam footage of the March 2020 arrest of Adam shows an arriving officer jump-tackling the chief to the ground without warning, punching him in the head and putting him in a chokehold. (Court exhibit)

"To me, it suggests that we do have police officers who turn to violence as a No. 1 tool in the toolkit, even when cameras could be on."

Still, Adam says that it's time for all police in Canada to don body cameras.

"[They] would justify the fact of their actions," he said. "If the individual proves to be unco-operative when being detained ... and if excessive force needs to be applied, well, the body cameras will show that."

Video use growing in Canada

Video recorded by both bystanders and police cameras played a key role in the conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was charged in the May 2020 killing of George Floyd. Chauvin was found guilty of murder and manslaughter by a jury on April 20.

"Body cams are, in my opinion, an essential tool in 21st-century policing," said Alain Babineau, a retired RCMP officer who now consults on public safety and racial profiling.

While body-worn cameras are more common among police forces in the United States, where nearly half of law enforcement agencies had them in 2016, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics survey, their use is growing in Canada.

Last fall, the RCMP announced funding for a national body-worn camera program for front-line RCMP officers, beginning with a pilot project in Iqaluit. Data from that project will guide future implementations in other parts of the country, the force says.

The Sûreté du Québec, the Toronto Police Service and a handful of other police forces across the country have already provided cameras to members or said they will launch similar projects.

"It's good for the officers in terms of protecting themselves from false accusations, and ... it's great for the community in terms of providing greater transparency in police actions," Babineau said.

But experts like Walby argue that data doesn't back up those claims.

"A lot of times, politicians or police or especially the companies that sell body cameras, they're pretty vocal. They'll say this will boost transparency. This will make policing better," he said.

"But there really isn't any evidence of that."

Hundreds of Toronto police officers have been equipped with body-worn cameras since August 2020, with 2,350 officers expected to use the cameras by October 2021. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Studies suggest little benefit to cameras

The Calgary Police Service, which in 2020 had about 1,150 cameras in use by officers, says that the devices have had a positive impact on the force, helping to de-escalate situations and increase transparency.

But following a year-long trial, police in Montreal ended the use of body cameras in 2019, citing logistical concerns and concluding they had little effect on police interventions.

Although he notes that some jurisdictions have found success, Walby says reports looking at multiple studies on the value of cameras back up the findings of Montreal police.

"There's been two really important meta-analyses published in the last few years that show there is actually no appreciable decrease in police violence, police use of force. There is no decrease in public complaints, and there's no increase in the perception of transparency," he said.

"It's exactly the opposite of what the companies say the cameras do."

Facing pressure from advocates, Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante has recently committed to once again providing body cameras to police in that city.

Police body cams protect innocent, chief says

According to Babineau, Chief Allan Adam's experience with the RCMP in northern Alberta proves body cameras are valuable tools.

Without the footage of Adam's arrest, he said, "it would have been the word of the members against the chief and other witnesses."

Kash Heed, a former chief constable of the West Vancouver Police Department and former solicitor general of British Columbia, says the footage proves the officer who pinned Adam to the ground and beat him used excessive force, and he questioned why they have yet to be punished.

"I'm not familiar with what their process is, but I'm very surprised that we don't have a criminal charge laid against that officer for his excessive use of force," he said.

When asked why charges have not yet been laid, the RCMP referred Checkup to ASIRT. In a statement, the watchdog says the investigation that began last June remains open, and findings will be made public once it is concluded.

While questions remain about the outcome of the investigation, Adam thinks putting body cameras on police officers is an important step to justice, particularly given that "minority people are being harassed by the RCMP [and] police force in the city."

"It works for the officer to prove their innocence and find guilt, and it also works for the people that are being portrayed as a criminal to prove their innocence ... or prove their guilt in a court of law," he said.

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