By Laila Kearney
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York City police launched a pilot program to equip officers with body cameras on Wednesday, hours before media reports that a grand jury decided against bringing charges against a white policeman in the choke hold death of a black Staten Island man.
The video camera program was ordered by a federal court judge who ruled last year that police had unfairly stopped and frisked black and Latino New Yorkers. It aims to make officers more careful and accountable about using force, Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters, while reducing complaints and lawsuits.
"Body cameras are one of the ways to create a real sense of transparency and accountability," de Blasio said. "They are going to give us a lot more information to work with."
The cameras are also intended to rebuild officer relations with the public, de Blasio said.
Eric Garner, a 43-year-old father of six, died in July while a police officer used a choke hold to arrest him for selling loose cigarettes on Staten Island. The incident, captured on a bystander's cell phone camera and circulated on the Internet and television, led to fresh calls for police body cameras.
De Blasio did not said why the program, initially scheduled to start next month, was launched early and whether the rollout was connected to the Eric Garner case.
Police Commissioner William Bratton, who headed the Los Angeles Police Department when it began testing the use of wearable cameras, said the devices encouraged good behavior in officers and civilians who knew they were being recorded.
"That will definitely change behavior very quickly," Bratton said.
A handful of New York police officers at six precincts with a history of excessive stop and frisk use will immediately begin camera training, Bratton said. On-duty camera use will start as early as Friday.
The pilot program will help answer questions surrounding the proper use of wearable police cameras, including those about privacy rights, when and for how long the devices will be left on during a shift and where memory will be stored, Bratton said.
Program results will be used to draft protocol for the use of thousands more cameras intended for the nation's largest police force, he said. Over the next year, the city will seek funding for the devices.
(Reporting by Laila Kearney; Editing by Eric Walsh)