The cost of eroding trust in Baltimore police

The 41 cases Baltimore prosecutors have dropped so far as a result of a police body camera video appearing to show an officer manipulating evidence while two others looked on may well result in violent, repeat offenders going free. We can’t say, of course, how many of those arrested by the officers were guilty, but thanks to an analysis of court records by The Sun’s Kevin Rector, Catherine Rentz and Tim Prudente, we know that eight of them were accused of gun law violations, and many had long criminal records including convictions for violent offenses. Were at least some of them the “bad guys with guns” that Baltimore police have been talking about getting off the streets for years? That could well be, but for now, they remain free.

What’s worse, the fallout from two recently released sets of body camera videos — one appearing to show an officer place drugs in a trash strewn alley that he “finds” a few seconds later, and the other showing an officer recovering a bag of drugs in a portion of a car that had been thoroughly searched a half-hour before — goes way beyond the cases the prosecutors have already dropped and those that they are still reviewing. It cuts to the already shaky credibility of Baltimore police in the community, and it makes prospective jurors all the more likely to disbelieve the testimony of officers in unrelated criminal cases.

That’s why Police Commissioner Kevin Davis’ defense last week of the arrests depicted in the videos — cautioning the public against rushing to judgment while simultaneously asserting that there was “no doubt” that drugs were recovered in both instances and that probable cause existed for arrests — is so disturbing.

We appreciate that the videos may not tell the whole story and that the investigations into what happened are ongoing. We agree with the commissioner that accusing the officers of planting evidence is “a heavy allegation to make.” But there can be no doubt, to borrow the commissioner’s phrase, that the videos destroy the credibility of the officers involved and damage it for the rest of the department.

This is no time for mixing messages. The public needs to hear an unequivocal assurance from the commissioner that he expects his officers to operate strictly by the book and that any who don’t will face discipline. Offering up the possibility, as Mr. Davis has done, that the officers weren’t planting evidence but merely recreating an earlier discovery for the benefit of the cameras comes across as excuse-making, and poor excuse-making at that. As multiple legal analysts told Mr. Rector, such an action is at a minimum a violation of departmental rules and possibly a crime in and of itself. Even if that wasn’t what happened and there is some heretofore unimagined innocent explanation, both videos show evidence of officers turning their cameras on and off during searches. That alone is enough to raise doubt in the minds of Baltimoreans who will eventually find themselves serving on juries.

The Fraternal Order of Police has offered up a reflexive defense of its members, but city police officers ought to shake their heads in bewilderment at the videos of their colleagues actions. These two incidents just made their jobs harder. They made prosecutors’ jobs harder. And if they lead to guilty people going free, whether because of the cases that have been dropped already or ones that will be “nullified by jury” down the road, they made Baltimore less safe.

Mayor Catherine Pugh released her long-awaited plan to reduce violent crime in the city today. It outlines dozens of policies and programs to combat violence ranging across a host of city, state and federal agencies, but it cannot obviate the fundamental need for police to investigate crimes properly and provide evidence that jurors find credible beyond a reasonable doubt so that guilty people go to jail. Ms. Mosby had no choice to drop the 41 cases and may have no choice but to drop others. Mr. Davis needs to make sure his officers don’t put her in that position again.

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