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31 cops volunteer to test out body cams

Six-month pilot program will test six models.

MORE THAN 30 cops from the 22nd District in North Philadelphia hit the streets with a new piece of equipment yesterday - a body-mounted video camera - as part of a six-month pilot program, the end goal of which is to roll out body cameras department-wide, a police spokesman said.

The support for on-officer cameras has gained momentum nationwide in light of the unrest that has resulted from the shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

However, Philadelphia Lt. John Stanford, a police spokesman, said the timing of the trial run of six on-officer camera models over the next six months was merely coincidental.

"It has absolutely nothing to do with the events in Ferguson over the past few months," he said. "We were already in the process of making this step in terms of moving into the future of policing here in Philadelphia."

All 31 officers volunteered to be outfitted with the cameras, and the 22nd District, headquartered at 17th Street and Montgomery Avenue, was ideal for the pilot program because it's a high-crime district with great diversity, Stanford said.

Yesterday, President Obama proposed a "Body Worn Camera Partnership Program" that would match investments municipalities make in on-officer cameras by 50 percent.

Cost is the hurdle that many departments, especially large ones like Philadelphia, face. The department was testing on-officer cameras as far back as 2012, but at the time, Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said that "it's a pretty expensive proposition."

On-officer cameras typically cost anywhere from $200 to $900 each.

But if the cameras could put a dent in the number of civil-rights lawsuits filed against police each year, it may be very well worth the expense. Last year alone, the city paid out $14 million in settlements for civil-rights lawsuits filed against police - that's up from $8 million in 2012.

SEPTA Transit Police began testing body-worn cameras in July. In the next two weeks, SEPTA Transit Police Chief Thomas Nestel said, the number of cops on his force with cameras will rise from six to 15.

Nestel said he's received nothing but a positive response from his officers about the devices.

"I think we'll get to a point where when you graduate from the academy they issue you a gun, a badge and a camera," he said.

If the data from his department's trial run is as good as he thinks it will be, Nestel said, he would like to equip all of his officers with cameras.

Stanford said that's the Philadelphia Police Department's hope, too.

"Eventually the goal is to do this citywide," he said. "Hopefully, this will increase the level of trust and lead to a better interaction between officers and civilians. It's the future of policing."

Cops aren't the only ones getting into the on-body camera game. A company out of Fredericksburg, Va., called Third Eye Watch is offering watches and glasses with video cameras installed in them for civilians to "monitor and record situations in which racial profiling or police injustice might occur," according to a news release.