With relationships between ordinary citizens and their police departments strained in many parts of the country, efforts continue to improve community-law enforcement relations in towns across the Garden State.

According to state Attorney General Christopher Porrino, over the past 2 ½ years, more than $4.5 million in body cam funding has been provided to the State Police and police departments all over Jersey and “over half of police departments across the state now have body cameras.”

“We’ve reached a tipping point and we’re quite happy with the success of the program so far, he said.

The most recent round of grants, $566,000 handed out in January to 37 law enforcement agencies, was provided using funds from the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program.

JAG funds are appropriated by Congress to the U.S. Department of Justice and then they’re given to different states to help prevent and control crime.

Porrino noted since police departments have started using body cameras there have been “fewer complaints lodged against our officers, but when we do see complaints they’re more often to be substantiated.”

“Body cameras are not an answer but they’re part of the solution to help increase the level of trust between law enforcement and our community members,” he said.

“There is accountability now, there’s a video and videos don’t lie so if there’s an incident we can go back and we can watch it and provides accountability both on the part of law enforcement and our commonalities.”

The state Supreme Court this summer ruled that footage from police car dashboard cameras are public record. Partly as a result of that ruling, officials in Maplewood last month released footage from dashcams and from arrests last year in an incident that had been criticized by some in the community as an excessive use of force by police. The footage resulted in township officials suspending its police chief and a captain and calls for reform.

But law enforcement officials in the state say video footage has also resulted in fewer complaints against police.

“With the drop in the number of overall complaints that we’re seeing comes a savings for local government because it’s less lawyers, fewer administrative proceedings to tend to, and we hope mayors see that savings and take advantage of the next round of funding," Porrino said.

Body cameras for police remain voluntary for police departments.

“It’s not mandatory, it has not been required by law. We believe that’s the best way of going about making these programs available," Porrino said.

He said during the last distribution of funds for body cams, there was just about enough money to give out to departments that wanted to get the body cameras so “we’re going to let demand build up again and provided we have the funding we’ll put some more funding out on the street.”

He said in addition to the body camera funds, the Attorney General’s Office handed out $220,000 in community grant money last month to help 28 police departments better connect with their communities.

“You know getting out there, coffee with a cop, barbecues with the police, anything that’s going to get police officers in touch with community members directly to increase that level of trust,” he said.

You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com

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