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New Jersey troopers getting body cameras under new policy

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Toni Yates has the story in Elizabeth. (WABC)

New Jersey plans to put body cameras on all state troopers who work in the field and is issuing guidelines on how local police forces statewide should use the devices.

Acting Attorney General John Hoffman, who outlined the plans Tuesday, also announced $2.5 million in state funding to help local police departments buy body cameras.

"The way to maintain mutual respect and trust between law enforcement and our communities is through accountability of police and civilians alike," Hoffman said.

New Jersey is among the first states with plans to put body cameras on all state troopers. Their use already was brewing as a hot topic in law enforcement before a spate of high-profile shootings by police nationally during the past year, including the death last August of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Civil rights groups and police officials generally support using them, though there's not universal agreement on what rules should be in place to balance the sometimes disparate interests of accountability and privacy.

"Whether body cameras are a good thing or a bad thing depends entirely on the policies behind them," Chad Marlow, the American Civil Liberties Union's advocacy and policy counsel, said in an interview Tuesday. He said it's important that all footage neither be required to be made public in open records requests nor exempted wholesale from state records laws.

Hoffman said New Jersey's rules strike the appropriate balance dealing with privacy, video retention and other issues. The NAACP and several other civil rights groups appeared with him as he unveiled the initiatives, though the ACLU was not among the groups.

ACLU of New Jersey Executive Director Udi Ofer said in a statement Tuesday that the policy is flawed because it does not require recording of many police interactions with civilians and has too many restrictions on public access to the recordings. He said it also allows police to keep the video indefinitely, causing some to worry that it could be dug up years later to embarrass someone who may have had a minor interaction with police, such as being drunk on the street.

The directive from Hoffman's office generally requires officers with cameras to have them on during certain types of interactions with the public but limits their use in homes, schools, hospitals and places of worship.

Hoffman said the state would buy 1,000 cameras for troopers during the next year or so at a cost of $1.5 million. The money also would cover computer upgrades needed to use the cameras.

The $2.5 million to help pay for local departments' cameras is to come from forfeiture funds.

About 30 law enforcement agencies in New Jersey are using cameras to some degree already or are planning to soon. That number is expected to rise as a result of a 2014 law that requires that police cars have dashboard cameras or officers to have body-mounted cameras. Body cameras cost less and have more versatility.

Lawmakers in several states have been passing policies dealing with camera use.

A new South Carolina law requires all police officers to have them. Pending legislation in Connecticut and a policy in Alabama would put cameras on all troopers there.

Hoffman said that some departments in New Jersey have seen the number of internal affairs complaints fall - often because the video shows that the officers were in the right.

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(Copyright ©2017 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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