Troubling images of an arrest

Baltimore County Police Chief Jim Johnson is right to be concerned about the way an officer repeatedly struck a young man in the face while arresting him outside a bar in downtown Towson early Saturday. The incident was recorded on the cell phone camera of a bystander who posted it on the Internet where it quickly went viral. Though the grainy video captured only about the last 30 seconds of the encounter, it was enough to raise serious questions about how county police handled the incident and whether officers violated the department's own guidelines on appropriate use of force in making the arrest.

The snippet of tape begins as 19-year-old Zachary Blumenstein, a student from Chevy Chase who attends Dickenson College in Carlise, Penn., is yanked roughly to the ground by an officer who then climbs on top of him. Then a second officer rushes over and appears to drop his knee onto Mr. Blumenstein's head. At that point, a third officer grabs and holds Mr. Blumenstein from behind while the second officer begins punching him in the face with his fist at least seven times.


Several bystanders who seemed to include other students can be heard on the video urging police to cease hitting Mr. Blumenstein, but the tape ends when officers order the crowd to disperse. The department has not identified the officers involved in the incident. But the video also appears to show that all the officers were white, while Mr. Blumenstein appears to be the only black person on the street at the time. A statement on the Baltimore County Police website said he has been charged with resisting arrest, disturbing the peace and other offenses and that he was released Saturday on his own recognizance.

Chief Johnson says he will review the incident to determine whether it complies with the department's use of force training, which requires officers to use the least amount of force needed to bring a situation under control and to escalate the use of force only when circumstances demand it. Mr. Johnson says that while officers may have been justified in escalating the use of force, the officer's use of a closed fist to pummel Mr. Blumenstein's head and face after he was already down is troubling because there are other techniques that could have been more effective in restraining him at that point.


The police report of the incident suggests officers had already encountered Mr. Blumenthal earlier that evening when they spotted him engaged in a loud argument with another man in front of the Greene Turtle bar and restaurant. The report said five other young men were trying to restrain Mr. Blumenstein, and that when police ordered him to leave the area he was verbally combative and yelling profanities. The arrest occurred about 40 minutes later after Mr. Blumenstein returned to the scene and officers saw him push another man onto York Road.

Unfortunately, the department doesn't have a visual recording of that earlier encounter because county police aren't yet equipped with kind of body cameras that could have provided more information about the string of events leading up to Mr. Blumenstein's arrest. A more complete visual record might have helped explain the officers' conduct as the arrest unfolded and if Mr. Blumenstein had posed a serious danger to the officers or to others nearby, it likely would have shown that too.

Baltimore City police recently completed a successful pilot program using the devices, and the results were encouraging enough that the department plans to equip the entire force with the devices over the next two years. To the credit of County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and Chief Johnson, the cameras are also coming to Baltimore County. Chief Johnson wants to deploy the first 150 devices next year and another 1,285 to the rest of his force in 2017. As an incident like this demonstrates, questions about police use of force aren't just a big city issue.

It's important to recognize that police body cameras are no substitute for better police-community relations. And there are some things the devices can't show, such as what was in an officer's mind during an encounter, or the subtle clues or facial expressions influencing his actions that could help put encounters likes the arrest of Mr. Blumenstein in context. And there's no guarantee the cameras will be pointed in the right direction to capture crucial details. But they can play an important role in fleshing out the details of investigations, and for that reason alone police departments need to recognize that it is in their interest as much as the public's to have as complete a record of such incidents as possible.