The New York Police department announced Thursday it's launching a pilot program to test 60 cameras worn by officers, becoming the latest and largest police department in the country to accept the technology as a tool of modern law enforcement.
Police Commissioner William Bratton predicted that the cameras would soon become standard equipment. "In years ahead, much the same as the bulletproof vest, the radio —this is going to be seen as an absolute essential part of what officers wear while on patrol," Bratton said.
The pilot program, funded by a $60,000 donation from a police foundation, is modeled after one being conducted by the Los Angeles Police Department, Bratton said.
Officers will be asked to voluntarily use one of two versions — one worn behind the ear, the other clipped to the front of the uniform — while on patrol in five precincts around the city.
"This pilot program will provide transparency, accountability and protection for both the police officers and those they serve, while reducing financial losses for the city," Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday in a joint statement with Public Advocate Letitia James.
Bratton cautioned that broader use of the cameras in the 35,000-officer department faces several hurdles, including costs that could run into the millions of dollars annually. The department still must develop protocols for when an officer should turn on a camera and determine how to store a potentially massive amount of video footage and for how long, he said.
The NYPD also must overcome skepticism from police unions. Bratton said he had met with union officials, telling them that there is evidence that the cameras can protect officers from false claims of abuse. "It's not a simple issue," Bratton said. "There are a lot of complexities going forward."
The commissioner said he was moving ahead with the program without waiting for final resolution of the legal fight over a federal judge's order to try out the technology to deter illegal street stops of minorities. The order is still under appeal by the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association and other unions. "Police officers have nothing to hide, but there are many unanswered questions as to how this will work practically," PBA president Patrick Lynch said in a statement on Thursday. "We await the answers."
The number of police departments using cameras has grown recently in part because technology has become smaller and easier to use.
In Ferguson, Missouri, where protests have raged over the Aug. 9 fatal shooting of unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson, police started wearing cameras this week. Chief Tom Jackson said that the department was given about 50 body cameras by two companies and that each officer will get one to use.
Donna Lieberman, head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the cameras should be a win-win as long as their use is limited to police interactions. "But we also have concerns about mission creep and privacy," she said. "The NYPD has a long history of engaging in surveillance of innocent New Yorkers, and body cameras can't become yet another tool for massive police surveillance. Safeguards must be in place to protect the privacy of both officers and the public."
With reports from the Associated Press.