The public defender’s office looked at the video and contended it showed an officer planting evidence in a trash-strewn alley.
Baltimore police countered with a more complicated explanation. They are investigating whether the officer had legitimately found drugs but, realizing he had forgotten to turn on his body camera, reconstructed his find. His body camera captured both him hiding the drugs and then finding them. Authorities said that would be improper but would not be an effort to make a false arrest of an innocent citizen. [It would also be improper to use such fake video to convict someone of a felony!]
The video led prosecutors to drop the felony drug case against a suspect who had been jailed for nearly six months. Baltimore police said one officer has been suspended and two others were placed on desk duty amid an internal investigation.
One officer has been suspended and two others have been placed on administrative duty, police said. Police said they have not reached any conclusions as to the conduct depicted in the video. Other cases in which the officers are involved are now under review as well, police and prosecutors said.
The case is among the latest to show the challenges faced by the growing number of police agencies whose officers wear cameras, including questions of when officers should start and stop recording, and how much discretion they should be given. [huh? stop & start the public's cameras?]
That portion of the footage was recorded automatically, before the officer activated the camera. After placing the can, the officer walks to the street, and flips his camera on.
“I’m gonna go check here,” the officer says. He returns to the lot and picks up the soup can, removing the plastic bag, which is filled with white capsules.
Police cameras have a feature that saves the 30 seconds of video before activation, but without audio. When the officer is first in the alley, there is no audio for the first 30 seconds.
The public defender’s office flagged the video for prosecutors last week, prompting prosecutors to drop the heroin possession charge against the man arrested.
The man, unable to post $50,000 bail, had been in jail since January, according to attorney Deborah Levi, who is leading a new effort to track police misconduct cases for the public defender’s office.
Levi said prosecutors called the officer just days later as a witness in another case — without disclosing the allegations of misconduct on the officer’s part to the defense attorney in that case.
“You can’t try a case with that guy and not tell anyone about it,” Levi said.
The footage, which garnered national attention Wednesday, comes as prosecutors and police continue to deal with the fallout from the federal indictment of seven members of an elite police gun squad.
Those officers are accused of robbing citizens, filing false court paperwork and claiming overtime they had not earned.
Prosecutors have since dropped dozens of cases that depended on those officers’ testimony.
The officer in the body camera footage was identified by the public defender’s office as Officer Richard Pinheiro.
Pinheiro could not be reached for comment Wednesday. City records show he was hired by the department in 2011, and in 2016 earned a salary of $62,676, with a net income of $67,570. Officers in Baltimore routinely earn overtime pay.
Two other officers seen in the video observing Pinheiro are Officers Hovhannes Simonyan and Jamal Brunson, according to public defender and court records obtained by The Baltimore Sun.
The public defender’s office said the state’s attorney’s office needs to do more in response to the discovery of the video. It said in a statement that the officer seen handling the plastic bag in the video is a witness in 53 other active cases. The other two officers in the video also are listed as witnesses in pending cases, the office said.
David Rocah, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Maryland, said that even “a faked recreation of officers finding the untied bag of drugs” would still be “potentially criminal” and should be a violation of police rules.
Rocah criticized the state’s attorney’s office for “the total lack of any apparent systemic response” to the incident, including putting the officer on the stand in another case after the video was flagged.
Rocah said it was “insane” that state laws that bar the disclosure of disciplinary records for police officers would prevent the public from seeing the results of the Police Department’s investigation or knowing how it punished the officers internally.
Rocah also said “there is zero reason to trust any video or any statement from any of these officers” given what was clearly observable in the video flagged by the public defender’s office.
“So even if it is indeed true that they simply staged a re-creation of finding the drugs, these officers have not only destroyed their own credibility, they have single-handedly destroyed the credibility of every piece of video where BPD officers find contraband without a clear lead-in that negates the possibility of it being staged,” Rocah said. "That’s quite a day’s work.”
Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis told reporters that his department is “looking to see if the officers in fact replaced drugs they had already discovered in order to document the discovery with their body-worn cameras.”
Davis played three clips from body cameras from several officers that precede the one released by the public defender. These videos showed officers searching the lot for some time and finding some drugs, though not necessarily the same heroin seen in the later video. “Right here,” one officer says. “There’s more here,” adds another.
There is a five-minute gap between the end of that video and the one that shows the officer hiding the bag. “Why were the cameras turned off and then turned back on?” Davis said. “I don’t know right now.”
The video that went viral on the Internet is yet another troubling episode for a department under a federal consent decree because of a documented pattern of discriminatory and abusive practices.
Christy Lopez, a Georgetown University law professor who led the Justice Department office that conducted reviews of troubled police departments, including Baltimore’s, said she was “not surprised” by the video.
She said her team’s review “documented a culture in which that kind of behavior can occur.” Lopez said she sees little distinction in whether drugs were planted or merely repositioned for the camera. “It’s still a lie, either way.”