Happy Valley-Goose Bay should scrap its bodycam program, says privacy commissioner

·4 min read
Michael Harvey was appointed Newfoundland and Labrador's information and privacy commissioner in July 2019. (Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner - image credit)
Michael Harvey was appointed Newfoundland and Labrador's information and privacy commissioner in July 2019. (Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner - image credit)

A strongly worded report from Newfoundland and Labrador's information and privacy commissioner recommends the Town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay suspend its body camera program indefinitely.

Due to a number of concerns the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner has with the program, the report says, the town should go back to the drawing board.

"The town should consider entirely abandoning the initiative and re-examine from scratch its approach to the policy problem of community trust of town enforcement officials," wrote Michael Harvey, provincial information and privacy commissioner, in the report, released Tuesday.

The report follows an investigation of the use of body cameras worn by municipal enforcement and animal control officers in the town, in an initiative that started last year.

The Town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay has said it hoped the cameras would protect both enforcement officers and people.
The Town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay has said it hoped the cameras would protect both enforcement officers and people.(Oliver Walters/CBC)

Some of concerns outlined in the report have to do with the cameras' potential to collect more information than needed. The cameras record audio and video of passersby and, potentially, of residents' homes.

Another concern regards the town's authority to disclose that information. The investigation found that proper protocols like filling out access logs were not being properly done.

The commissioner said the town is not clear on its legal authority for the program or on the range of duties listed in a municipal enforcement officer's job description.

The Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner began a formal investigation into the town's body camera program last December.
The Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner began a formal investigation into the town's body camera program last December. (Town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay)

Harvey also called it strange that the mayor and town councillors are able to access the footage.

"The notion that the town has officials in the community exercising law enforcement authorities when it is unclear whether they have those authorities has implications for how they collect personal information, but beyond that, is quite troubling in general," wrote the commissioner, adding that there are "significant deficiencies in the town's compliance with the law."

Recommendations

Harvey's recommendations include that the town develop a privacy management program, complete a privacy assessment of the program, update the program to comply with the province's Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, and consult the public.

While the commissioner's recommendations are generally non-binding, in this case one recommendation — that the town stop collecting, using or disclosing personal information gathered by the bodycams — falls under a section of the act that requires the town, if it wishes to keep the program as is, to persuade a court that it is not in contravention of the legislation. The town has 10 business days from the date of the report's release to begin that process.

The town told CBC News it will not comment at this time.

The privacy commissioner said he doesn't deny there may be a place for body cameras in Happy Valley-Goose Bay but extensive research and consultation should be done first.
The privacy commissioner said he doesn't deny there may be a place for body cameras in Happy Valley-Goose Bay but extensive research and consultation should be done first.(Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Lack of communication

Enforcement officers started wearing the cameras in July, but the town has told the privacy commissioner the program is now on hold.

The report states that the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner learned about the initiative through the media and numerous requests for information from the town went unanswered for weeks and months at a time, prompting a formal investigation.

Due to the complexity of a program like this, the commissioner says, strict oversight is needed, but the town was facing staffing challenges, with four unfilled management roles at the time.

"We have significant doubts whether the town, even fully staffed, has the capacity to properly design and implement such a program," wrote Harvey.

"This may help explain why it is difficult to find a town of a comparable size — in this province or elsewhere in Canada — with such a program."

Only a handful of police agencies in Canada use body cameras, which tend to be used in larger centres.

The information and privacy commissioner says there may be a place for body cameras in Happy Valley-Goose Bay but in many jurisdictions in Canada where they have been implemented, it's been done so following extensive research and consultation.

"The town has done none of this," wrote Harvey.

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