Critics are chastising the Victoria police board for voting in secret to continue using its controversial automated licence-plate cameras.
The civilian police board, which is charged with overseeing VicPD’s budget and policies, went in camera at a meeting last week to debate privately a motion by Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin that would have turned the cameras off while the police department addressed concerns raised by B.C.’s privacy commissioner.
The nine-member civilian board instead emerged from behind closed doors to say the cameras would remain operational while VicPD works with the RCMP to review the privacy commissioner’s suggestions.
The board’s secrecy and changing position is “troubling,” said Vincent Gogolek, executive director of the B.C. Freedom of Information Association.
“Given the result of what happened in camera, I think there has to be some explanation,” he said.
Privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham said in a report last month that VicPD and other police forces are breaking B.C.’s privacy law by capturing licence-plate data on people who aren’t suspects of crimes, and sharing that information with the RCMP (who say they later delete it).
In response, Victoria police chief Jamie Graham called parts of Denham’s report inaccurate and praised the cameras. Only the RCMP, which leases the cameras to other police forces, can change how they work, VicPD has said.
The RCMP said it’s reviewing the report. Saanich police have suspended use of the cameras.
Gogolek called on the VicPD board to publicly justify its decision.
“There’s a motion going in [to the meeting] for the Victoria Police Department to stop acting illegally, as described by the commissioner in her report, and the mayor goes in saying, ‘;We should probably do this.’
“Then they go in camera and come out and say, ‘;Well, actually, continuing to violate the law seems entirely reasonable to us.’
“I think that requires explanation.”
VicPD can’t pick and choose which of B.C.’s laws it wants to follow, Gogolek said.
Fortin said he is constrained on speaking about the issue because, as board chairman and spokesman, he’s obliged to express only the board’s decision.
“It was the will of the board to go in camera, ensuring that any operational issues that might endanger the safety of our officers, or if there were legal implications, there could be a full and frank discussion,” Fortin said.
The motion to move in camera came from Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins, the board’s vice-chairwoman.
“I was concerned we needed to hear if there were any significant operational or [legal] liability issues,” Desjardins said.
The VicPD board cited two sections of the B.C. Police Act that let it close a meeting to the public. They pertain to any disclosure that would seriously impair effective policing and information someone has asked to keep private.
Desjardins described the situation as “a bit of a procedural mess” because Fortin’s motion didn’t have a staff report from VicPD on the potential operational and legal implications.
“I think there are ways to do this better, and hindsight is always 20-20,” Desjardins said. “But with the way it came forward, it was difficult.”
Desjardins said she stands by the police board’s actions because they allowed for discussion about sensitive operational and legal matters.
“We try to make as much information available to the public as possible,” she said. “Nobody wants to go in camera.”
> Editorial: Wrong moves on camera issue, A10
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