By Tina Susman

The New York Police Department on Wednesday announced the start of a pilot program this week to fit some officers with body cameras, an idea that has gained nationwide attention in the wake of the shooting of a Ferguson, Mo., man that sparked mass protests.

Police Commissioner William J. Bratton and Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the experiment before a grand jury decided not to indict a New York City police officer in the killing of Eric Garner, an unarmed man whose last words -- "I can't breathe" -- became a rallying cry for demonstrators demanding the officer be prosecuted.

Garner's death as Officer Daniel Pantaleo held him in an apparent chokehold was captured on video by an onlooker. Pantaleo has denied using a chokehold, and De Blasio would not say if he thought body cameras used on any of the officers involved in the altercation would have clarified matters.

But he said that any tool that provides an officer's perspective would help avoid future controversies. "I think that's powerful," said De Blasio, who was elected last year in part on promises to improve police relations with communities that accused officers of racial profiling and abuse of authority.

"This police force is keeping us safer all the time, but we still have work to do in bringing our neighborhoods, our communities closer" to the NYPD, he said. "Today is another example of the progress we're making."

The Los Angeles Police Department experimented with body cameras earlier this year, and it has chosen a vendor to supply the devices to be worn by hundreds of its officers. No start date has been set for the cameras to go into use.

Elsewhere in Southern California, officials in Rialto in San Bernardino County say allegations of police abuse plummeted after officers there began wearing cameras in 2012.

London police began experimenting with the cameras last May.

There was no body camera in use last August when Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, an unarmed man, to death. A grand jury last month decided not to indict Wilson, reigniting unrest in Ferguson and beyond.

On Monday, President Obama proposed a three-year, $263-million spending package to improve policing that would include the use of body-worn cameras to monitor officers' interactions with the public. De Blasio said if the idea became a reality, New York would hope to get a share of the funds to buy cameras for its more than 34,000 officers, assuming it adopts their use for the entire department.

For now, just 54 officers in six New York City precincts will begin wearing the cameras beginning later this week. The experiment will last three months. The precincts were chosen because they were among those that reported a high number of "stop-and-frisk" incidents, or random police stops of pedestrians, De Blasio said.

A judge last year ruled against the city in a federal lawsuit brought by plaintiffs who alleged police were using unconstitutional means in the random stops, often of black and Latino men. The city agreed to a series of reforms and De Blasio said the camera experiment was one such reform.

(c)2014 the Los Angeles Times