Do Baltimore police not realize they're being watched?

Police and prosecutors ask us not to rush to judgment about a second series of police body camera videos that raise questions about officers planting drugs during a search. Fine. But it certainly looks fishy, and it reinforces concerns raised by the Department of Justice’s report into the Baltimore police’s conduct a year ago.

The public learned from the first questionable video released this summer that Baltimore’s body cameras are continually recording a short loop of footage even when they’re turned off, so that when an officer activates the camera, the device preserves the previous 30 seconds of tape, though with no sound. That’s why we were able to see Officer Richard Pinheiro appear to place a baggie of drugs in a soup can in an alley, walk back to the corner, turn his camera on, walk back and “find" the drugs. And it's part of what makes the new series of videos that came to light this week so suspicious.

In the new case, police pull over a car on Nov. 29, 2016, after witnessing what they believe to have been a drug deal. Police said they smelled marijuana in the car and initiated a search. At about 11:51 p.m., according to a time stamp on the video, one officer is seen thoroughly searching the area around the driver’s seat. He takes out the floor mat, runs his hands between the cushions, shines his flashlight under and around the seat and, after a minute of looking, finds nothing.

Then, for reasons that are unexplained, the officers turn off their cameras. When the cameras come back on, an officer is squatting next to the open driver’s side door. Nothing happens for about 30 seconds. Then an officer asks whether the driver’s side area has been searched already — which it had, half an hour before. No one responds, and he almost immediately finds a black bag he says contains marijuana and other drugs.

The odd sequence of events doesn’t prove anything, of course. Police say the officer who found the drugs had been watching the car before the traffic stop and knew where to look.

If that’s true, why didn’t he share his knowledge of where in the car the drugs were likely to be half an hour before? And what about the turning cameras off and on? The delay of 30 seconds means that whatever happened immediately before the cameras was reactivated would not be preserved. Is that proof that the officer planted drugs? No. Does that provide the defense with a mountain of reasonable doubt? You bet. Consequently prosecutors dropped this case and are reviewing dozens more associated with the officers who participated in the arrest..

What was so damning about last year’s Justice Department’s report was not the misconduct federal investigators uncovered, it was the utter brazenness with which it was conducted. DOJ officials uncovered repeated incidents of blatantly unconstitutional practices during the months when they were in Baltimore conducting their review, including some that occurred right in front of them. It’s as if no one thought there was anything wrong, for example, with a supervisor telling a officer to “make something up” as a pretext for stopping a group of young African-American men and ordering them to disperse.

These two body camera videos and other recent events raise the disturbing prospect that even after the DOJ report and the consent decree that followed, many Baltimore police officers still don’t get it. The federal investigation that led to racketeering indictments against seven Baltimore police officers who are accused of seizing and pocketing money from people they stopped for no reason, falsifying evidence and making fraudulent overtime claims started while the DOJ was conducting its investigation and continued after the report was released. The first of the two questionable body camera videos to surface in recent weeks depicts — in a best case scenario — an officer “recreating” a search on camera with the evident cooperation of two other officers. Whatever happened in this latest incident, it involved a coordinated decision by multiple officers to turn their cameras off and back on.

Commissioner Kevin Davis recently issued a memo reiterating a policy that officers keep their body cameras on throughout “a call for service or other activity that is investigative or enforcement-related (e.g., crime scene, car stop, or pedestrian stop)” and during a search, and cautioning that “under no circumstances” should officers recreate incidents on camera. But it’s increasingly evident that the problem is much deeper than a misunderstanding about body camera policy. It’s that so many officers are willing to break the rules even when they know they’re being watched. It’s going to take a lot more than a memo to fix that.

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