The Baltimore Police Department is investigating three cops who submitted body camera video that seemed to show them manipulating evidence in a drug case, Commissioner Kevin Davis announced in an afternoon press conference.
"If our community thinks there are police officers who are planting evidence during the course of their duty, that's certainly something that will keep me up at night," Davis told a press scrum that included national television network reporters.
In a video released yesterday to Fox 45 by the Office of the Public Defender, an officer is seen placing a bag of drugs in a soup can and putting the can in a grubby yard, walking away from the yard, then returning to the can and "discovering" it.
The part of the video where the officer places the drugs is silent, because while the body cameras video-record everything, they only begin audio recording when they are activated by the officer. At the point of activiation, the camera automatically captures the previous 30 seconds of video and appends it to the recording.
"I'm gonna go check here," the officer, whom the Officer of the Public Defender identified as Richard Pinheiro, said before he walks back to the can.
A spokeswoman with the Office of the Public Defender identified the other two officers seen in the video as Jamal Brunson and Hovhannes Simonyan.
The police department responded to the released video with context: three related videos.
Department spokesman and Deputy Commissioner Jason Johnson, of the department's Office of Professional Integrity, walked through a series of four videos depicting the investigation and arrest of a man on heroin-dealing charges on January 24. One shows an officer pulling over a heroin customer, whose face and body are obscured by a huge black blob to protect his privacy. A second video is from another officer in that same car. "I want what you just bought, boss," that officer told the driver. "This is your way of going home."
The driver hands over a couple of gel caps. Davis said the driver told those cops where he thought the stash was.
Another video, taken in a corner store, shows police handcuffing a thin African-American man. They ask if he has anything on him, and the man replies he has some weed and "something else." Davis says the something else was a gel cap of heroin.
Then, in the video, the cops start searching for the stash. They're in a backyard of an abandoned house on the 600 block of Smallwood Street. The yard is fenced and strewn with trash. Police spokesman T.J. Smith fast-forwards through several minutes of the nine-minute video search, explaining that the officers do indeed find a bag of gel caps.
But the bag has a knot in it.
Davis explained that drug dealers usually have an open bag. The cops on the video figure the knotted-up one is a spare. So they continue the search.
Then on the screen: an un-knotted bag being put into a soup can by a cop.
There is also a five-minute gap in the footage. The officer apparently shut off the camera, then turned it back on to "discover" the open stash bag.
"Our investigative efforts have just gotten underway," Davis said. "We have not reached any conclusions."
He said the officer who put the drugs in the can (Pinheiro) has been placed on leave. Two others are on administrative duty with no contact with the public.
The police did not know there was a problem with the case until very recently, he said, because the department doesn't review the video before turning it over to prosecutors.
Left unanswered was the main question: If these officers were re-enacting their discovery of the all-important open baggie, what would compel them to do that? They already had the dealer, with drugs on his person, plus a customer, plus a full bag of suspected heroin. Why gild the lily?
"That's not part of our business model, to re-enact the recovery of contraband," Davis said. "I'm convinced we're gonna get to the bottom of it."
Charges against the man were dropped, the Officer of the Public Defender said in its release, but Officer Pinheiro is still listed as a witness in 53 active cases and testified a week after the State's Attorney's Office was made aware of the bodycam video. The video's existence was not disclosed during that testimony.
"We have long supported the use of police body cameras to help identify police misconduct, but such footage is meaningless if prosecutors continue to rely on these officers, especially if they do so without disclosing their bad acts," said Debbie Katz Levi, head of the Baltimore Public Defender's special litigation section.
Additional reporting by Brandon Weigel