Public safety minister Mike Ellis’s pitch for a province-wide police body camera mandate had everything you’d expect in a pre-election UCP proposal: it’s a distracting waste of money, a policy idea that looks good on paper but experts broadly pan as ineffective, and it touches a hot-button conservative issue, in this case: law and order.
As soon as a UCP ‘working group’ of Alberta based police chiefs figures out the details—at some undetermined date after the election—Alberta police officers will be mandated to wear body cams at all times on duty.
Ellis called the policy change transformational, but cameras don’t stop police brutality from happening. And they certainly don’t address Alberta’s already-broken police accountability system or the agency in charge of investigating when cops kill or seriously injure people, the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT).
ASIRT takes years to finish an investigation. It’s been more than a year since Edmonton Police shot two people dead, one of them who was just sitting in their house watching TV, and still no updates. And even if ASIRT found that these EPS officers made a mistake the likelihood of them facing any kind of actual consequences is slim to none.
But Ellis’ project will transform budgets, at least. Body cameras and the infrastructure to use them aren’t cheap. Purchasing and maintaining the cameras, processing and storing the data, and paying everyone up and down that whole system will drain millions of dollars, likely from municipal budgets.
(You’ll have to forgive the financial vagueness of the last paragraph, as Ellis’ announcement did not have anything on dollar figures, privacy concerns, how they’ll get the RCMP to comply, whether they’ll be group purchasing, whether the province will pay for anything or any kind of timeline.)
Image via Axon.com
Axon Corporation hired a well-connected conservative lobbyist to make it all happen
Body cameras aren’t cheap and the dominant player in body camera space is a company called Axon, formerly called Taser. Axon saw revenue of $1.19 billion in 2022, up from 38 per cent the year before. And the company is certainly ambitious: by 2025 they want to crest the $2 billion in revenue mark.
In 2022 Axon sold over $290 million in software and sensor products. This includes body cameras, dash cameras and warranties.
And because this is Alberta you have to know that this idea didn’t just spring from the mind of Mike Ellis unbidden. Conservative insider, former federal cabinet minister under Stephen Harper and lobbyist Monte Solberg was hired by Axon to lobby the government of Alberta to promote its products on October 11, 2022 according to the Alberta Lobbyist Registry.
Solberg’s son, Matt Solberg also worked at New West Public Affairs until October 2022 according to his Linkedin page. He now works for the UCP as the executive director of the government caucus. The lobbyist registry also shows that Axon hired another lobbyist with conservative credentials, Gordon Olsen, to promote their products to the provincial government in 2019. Olsen joined New West Public Affairs in June 2021.
And while the specific claims of specific manufacturers weren’t being trotted out by Minister Ellis the talking points were remarkably similar. Ellis spoke about how body cameras will increase accountability and transparency, so does Axon. The company is very consistent with its messaging; Erick Laming, an assistant professor in criminology and sociology at Trent and Christopher Schneider a sociology professor from Brandon University, concluded in a peer-reviewed study on public statements made by Axon about its body camera products that “Axon mostly, although not entirely, made unverified statements absent any empirical evidence in support of their claims in news media reports and on Twitter.”
Where is the opposition on this? Alberta NDP justice critic Irfan Sabir supported “increased transparency” but slammed the UCP for not having any details on timelines, funding or how the data will be managed.
“Meanwhile, there is a massive backlog of cases at ASIRT. If the UCP was serious about transparency they would be focused on clearing this backlog so law enforcement is held accountable and Albertans have access to justice.
“Once again, this is a desperate attempt by Danielle Smith and the UCP to look like they’re taking action on the eve of an election without any real plan,” said Sabir.
Body cams are pitched to us as a source of trust, oversight, accountability and transparency. But it’s precisely the lack of all those things that makes them worse than useless.
Alberta’s police have proven that they can’t be trusted with the power of surveillance. ASIRT is broken and police commissions across the province are toothless—there will be little oversight to ensure cams are not abused and the collected video is made accessible. Police in this province are already not held accountable for significant acts of violence, so there’s little reason to expect they’ll be held accountable if cams just ‘happen’ to be out of order in situations of misconduct. And it’s absurd to expect that police forces that already have significant transparency issues are going to be forthcoming with video that makes them look bad.
It’s precisely because trust between the police and the public is broken that people are yearning for some sort of solution, but body cams aren’t it. And every dollar Ellis takes that could have gone to housing, mental health supports or social programs is instead going to go to corporations like Axon and the expansion of the surveillance state.