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Letitia James unveils her cop-camera pilot proposal

One style of body-worn cameras is displayed during

One style of body-worn cameras is displayed during a demonstration and news conference Thursday, August 21, 2014, in the office of New York Public Advocate Letitia James. Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

With tensions between the police and the public reaching new heights following the Eric Garner and Ferguson cases, the city's public advocate introduced a plan Thursday to equip cops with cameras.

Letitia James' proposal would field-test the body-worn cameras in the police precincts with the highest number of complaints, including the 120th Precinct in Staten Island, which has come under fire following Garner's death from an apparent chokehold.

"I think what it does is provide an objective record in events surrounding any particular incident and there is no room for discussion," she said.

The pilot, which would cover about 15% of the force, would need the approval of Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYPD. It would not require a sign off by a legislative body, according to the public advocate's office. The mayor's office didn't comment about James' proposal but de Blasio did call the cameras "a productive idea," during a news conference last month.

Pat Lynch, the president of the Patrolman's Benevolent Association, said the union was reserving its decision on the cameras until the union saw more evidence of their effectiveness.

Specifics on the plan would be worked out with James, the police and the mayor. The public advocate Thursday displayed two examples of available devices that are small enough to be attached to a breast pocket while holding 54 hours of audio and video.

James said the proposal would be financially efficient because it would only cost $32 million to supply the entire force with the cameras and they would cut down on the $152 million the city pays out for police-related complaints.

"I believe we will see a reduction in those claims and the taxpayer will see some savings," the public advocate said.

She noted that other big city police forces have field-tested the technology with pilot programs, including Los Angeles and Oakland, and they subsequently saw their police complaints shrink.

Jorja Leap, a social welfare professor at UCLA, said the L.A. pilot project, which took place in the winter and invovled 30 officers, improved the force's image with the community. "The LAPD has a very positive take on it," she said.

The NYPD didn't return messages for comment.

U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin called for the devices to be used following her ruling in the lawsuit filed by New Yorkers who said they were racially profiled by the police's stop-and-frisk tactic.

Lynch argued the city could better save money by being more aggressive in dealing with lawsuits.

"What [James] fails to say is that the city refuses to fight even the most ridiculous and baseless of the claims," he said in a statement.

City Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson, who chairs the public safety committee, said she approves of the plan in principle but had some concerns about privacy. Nonetheless, she said her Bronx constituents would want to see the program implemented on their streets because it will make police-community relations more transparent.

"It can protect the police officers more than it can protect the public," she said. "You give a greater understanding of what took place."

John DeCarlo, coordinator of the police studies program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, agreed. The police policy expert said if done properly, New York can set the example for the rest of the nation when it comes to the use of this technology while ironing out any of the ethical and technological kinks.

"It is a very forward looking move and it's extremely timely," he said of the public advocate's proposal. "There is no better place to try this than New York."


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