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In post-Freddie Gray Baltimore, the need for body cameras

Police body cameras needed to determine merit of complaints large and small

What we have here is a he said/he said story originating with a West Baltimore man's complaint about how police and federal agents treated him one morning two weeks ago. It's the kind of story that, pre-Freddie Gray, I might have skipped, because concluding who's wrong and who's right is too hard. There's no cellphone video.

And maybe Steve Dixon just needs to Google "search warrants" to understand what they entitle cops to do.

But we're post-Freddie Gray now, and the story speaks to a couple of issues relevant to the present and future: the raw resentment some citizens feel for law enforcement and law enforcement's tough job made tougher by that resentment, and the potential of police body cameras to influence behavior and provide a video record that resolves complaints.

So here goes.

About 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday, July 14, Dixon was in his house on McCulloh Street. He heard his dog bark, peered out a second-floor window and saw uniformed officers "beating" on his front door. There were other men, later identified as Secret Service agents. They had a search warrant, seeking evidence related to a Camden Yards concessions worker suspected of stealing credit card information from baseball fans.

"The [police] were in the process of knocking my door off of its hinges," Dixon described the moment in an email to me later that day. "We went back and forth verbally about who they were 'hunting' and I assured them that it was not me or anyone who resides in my home."

The woman they were looking for, Dixon insisted, had not lived in the house for nearly three years. She was a former girlfriend of his stepson, and the mother of his stepson's children. Still, the police and agents had a warrant to search the rowhouse.

"I opened the door for them after being threatened with instant destruction of a beautiful wood-and-glass front door," Dixon says. "These public servants proceeded to drag me out of my house in front of my neighbors with nothing on but my underwear."

Dixon, 57, is chief operating officer of the Penn North Recovery Center on North Avenue, and he's on the adjunct faculty at Coppin State University. He said the officers came with a battering ram, and six of them drew guns.

"One of them grabbed me and pulled me into the street in my Joe Boxers and a sleeveless T-shirt," Dixon says. "Another police officer attempted to place my hands behind my back and handcuff me. I yelled that I was not under arrest and he let me go, but would not allow me to go back into the house. I was forced to stand outside in my underwear for about 15 or 20 minutes. I told them that no one lives there but my wife. They were so disrespectful to me."

Asked to respond to Dixon's complaint that he was treated rudely, the Baltimore Police Department declined comment. The Secret Service issued a statement saying its agents "acted in a professional and courteous manner" while executing the search warrant.

"Upon arriving at the [Dixon] residence," the statement said, "agents followed appropriate protocols and procedures and were allowed entry into the residence after explaining to the homeowner that they had a search warrant.

"Approximately 30 minutes after law enforcement officers left the residence, the suspect contacted law enforcement officers and acknowledged that she had been told that agents had executed the search warrant. In addition to being the address of record for her payroll records and driver's license, the suspect acknowledged that she uses the residence as her primary address and resides at the address on the search warrant at least several days a week."

Dixon says that last bit — about the suspect residing in his house — is not true.

He also questions why, in a city besieged with violent crime, so many officers and federal agents were needed for a credit card fraud investigation.

I understand why Dixon was upset, but told him the cops and agents were just doing their jobs. And that, to Dixon's mind, is the problem.

"If we keep allowing our public servants to 'just keep doing their jobs' then this active police state will continue to grow and fester," he said. "I continue to see these incidents over and over again, and it's sad. The police use excessive force and power as if that is their job title. No, they are servants and we, as taxpayers, should expect more and better of them."

As I said, it's he said/he said: two different versions of what happened between a citizen and police one fine morning in Baltimore, and no cellphone video, that we know of, to verify either account. The Secret Service says the operation was conducted courteously and professionally; a citizen found law enforcement heavy-handed and humiliating.

Disputes, complaints, questions about police conduct — in the post-Freddie Gray world, there's going to be more of that before there's less of it. Police body cameras will help resolve complaints. They might even influence the behaviors that cause them.

drodricks@baltsun.com

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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