Kevin Davis, Baltimore Police Commissioner, comments on the missing video footage from police body cameras. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)
Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said Wednesday there was "no doubt" that illegal drugs were legitimately recovered in two criminal cases that were dropped by prosecutors amid questions surrounding officer body-camera footage.
Defense attorneys in both cases have alleged that the footage showed officers planting drugs.
Davis, who called a news conference Wednesday to discuss the cases, said it is the job of defense attorneys to raise doubt. But he warned that accusing officers of fabricating evidence is "a heavy allegation to make" and "irresponsible" before investigations into the footage are complete — even if the footage looks "ugly" on first impression.
"It would be premature of me to stand in front of you and reach a conclusion as to exactly what happened," he said. "But I do know that it's not healthy to jump to a conclusion that police officers did something criminal.
"In both of these cases, it's no doubt that drugs were recovered and the recovery of those drugs were captured on body-worn cameras. There's no doubt that that took place in either case. There's no doubt that probable cause existed for arrest."
Debbie Katz Levi, who heads the special litigation section in the Baltimore public defender office, called Davis' comments "incredibly offensive."
"Let's wait to see all the evidence before charging someone with felonies that carry 20 years in prison," Levi said. "What is the excuse for them rushing to judgment, and then looking backward and dropping charges seven months later?"
In the first video, recorded in January and released by the public defender's office last month, a police officer can be seen placing a bag of alleged drugs in a debris-strewn back yard, walking to the street, activating his body camera — which automatically saved footage of the 30 seconds prior to activation — and then walking back into the alley and recovering the bag.
The public defender's office said the video showed the officer planting the bag of drugs.
The second video, released Tuesday, shows officers conducting a search of a vehicle and finding nothing in the front driver's side area of the car. Then, about 30 minutes later, it shows an officer leaning down into the same area of the vehicle and back up with a bag of alleged drugs.
The public defender's office and Josh Insley, a private attorney for a woman arrested in that incident, said the video showed officers manipulating evidence. Shamere Collins, the woman who was arrested, said the drugs were planted in her vehicle by police.
Prosecutors dropped the charges against Collins Monday. She has said she will pursue her legal options against the Police Department.
Insley on Wednesday said he and his client "understand that there is an internal affairs investigation going on" and are "content to let the investigation play out."
The Police Department has launched investigations into both incidents. Officials said they have suspended one officer and placed two others on administrative duty pending the outcome in the first case. No officers have had their status changed in relation to the second.
The police union has cautioned against reaching conclusions in the cases before the investigations are complete.
Police have said they are investigating whether the officers were "re-enacting" a legitimate discovery of drugs that had been made when their cameras were not activated as they should have been. On Tuesday, Davis issued a memo reminding all officers to keep their body cameras on at all times at a crime scene or conducting an investigation, and warning that "under no circumstances" should they "attempt to recreate the recovery of evidence."
Levi, the public defender, said Davis should simply admit the officers' actions in the videos are unacceptable no matter what the explanation, rather than pretending to be neutral in the discussion while offering a theory that they weren't planting evidence but re-creating its discovery.
"Is he not jumping to conclusions by inserting this 're-creation of evidence' language?" she asked.
Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby has begun dropping criminal cases against dozens of defendants whose prosecutions hinged on the testimony of the officers in the videos.
Mosby's office said it has dropped or will drop 41 felony drug and gun cases against defendants that rely on the testimony of the officers in the first video. She said 55 cases remain under review, and 27 will move forward on the strength of independent, corroborative evidence.
Mosby's office has dropped five cases that rely on the testimony of the officers featured in the second video, and sought postponements in two others.
Her office did not respond to questions on Wednesday.
Davis stopped short of criticizing Mosby for dropping the cases.
"In her opinion, the best of interest of justice compelled her to make the decision that she made, and I completely respect that decision," Davis said.
But he acknowledged that he hates "when a criminal case has to be dropped because of real or perceived concerns about a police officer's credibility," in part because he believes some of the people whose cases have been dropped will likely return to the street to commit additional crimes.
"God forbid that they hurt somebody," Davis said. "That's what I worry about."
The pace of violence in the city this year is breaking records. Two hundred and six people had been killed in Baltimore in 2017, the most ever recorded at this point in the year.
Since spring 2016, when the Police Department began rolling out body cameras, officers have recorded 121,000 hours of footage, Davis said. The cameras are part of a broader reform effort mandated by a consent decree between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice. The sides negotiated the decree after Justice Department investigators found widespread unconstitutional and discriminatory policing in the city — and particularly in its poor, predominantly black neighborhoods.
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Police have sustained 14 administrative misconduct cases against officers based on body-camera footage, Davis said. One officer was indicted on criminal assault charges based on body-camera footage, he said.
Another 62 officers have received administrative reprimandeds based on lesser infractions revealed by body-camera footage, he said.
Much other body-camera footage has shown officers acting bravely and for the benefit of the community, he said. Still other footage shows officers simply getting used to the new technology.
"We just have to have a frank conversation with the community that we are still in the midst of growing pains," he said.