Another day, another suspicious police body-camera video
The Baltimore Sun|
Aug 24, 2017 at 3:55 PM
A “self-reported” third police body-camera video showing “questionable activity” by a Baltimore police officer has emerged. (Baltimore Sun video)
And then there were three.
This week, prosecutors revealed that a third video from a Baltimore police body camera may have been staged. This, after the revelation last month of two cases of body-cam footage showing officers "finding" drugs that they had previously found — or possibly planted.
Welcome to Baltimore's own Groundhog Day. To recap:
The first questionable footage, dating back to January but emerging publicly in July, showed an officer putting a red can containing a plastic bag of white capsules in a trash-strewn lot, walking away and then returning to discover it.
Barely two weeks later, a second taped incident turned up, of a traffic stop in November in which an initial search of the vehicle came up empty, but 30 minutes later, an officer looking in the same part of the car pulled out a bag allegedly containing drugs.
And now, the most recent video, from June. While not providing many details or the footage itself, officials said it depicts a re-enactment of evidence being seized, rather than planted. Additionally, this time, rather than being caught by defense attorneys, the problem with the video was "self-reported" by an officer.
There may well be ameliorating circumstances that set this latest case apart or make it less egregious than the earlier ones. But it may also be just so much hair-splitting.
Police have already said they're investigating whether the first two cases were also re-enactments of actual seizures that for whatever reason happened off camera. Commissioner Kevin Davis has gone so far as to declare there is "no doubt" drugs were found on both occasions. And yes, while it's better to 'fess up to a potential problem than wait to get caught, it's hardly "a good problem to have," as a police spokesman spun this week. Self-awareness that you should get ahead of a situation doesn't really excuse why you're in the situation in the first place.
But in the end, what matters is that body-cam footage is evidence, and there are rules on how you handle evidence. Break those rules, for whatever reason, and risk it being unusable in convicting someone.
The number of cases dropped because of this creative editing or whatever is going on with these particular body-cam videos is staggering. At a time when the city desperately needs to arrest, prosecute and convict those who commit real crimes, while not harassing those who haven't, we can't forfeit this many cases.
Mr. Davis said Thursday he disagreed with a decision by prosecutors to drop charges related to the most recent disputed body-cam video, along with other cases those officers are involved in. The fault lies with his department, however, not with prosecutors.
There should be no reason to re-enact a legitimate drug seizure — department policy calls for officers to turn on their cameras at a crime scene or investigation and to keep them on. No do-overs. Mr. Davis has reiterated this, as recently as this month, and we can only hope the message will eventually take hold. How these officers are disciplined, if the internal investigations find wrongdoing, should further reinforce the message.
Baltimore's body camera program is still relatively new — the rollout began in spring 2016 — but they are a key part of the reforms that the city has undertaken to comply with a federal civil rights investigation into discriminatory policing. It would be a shame, and a missed opportunity, if these allegedly manipulated videos cast a permanent shadow on this valuable tool.
For one thing, video — whether from police body cameras or the ubiquitous cellphones of random bystanders — can offer an unvarnished view of a Baltimore many of us don't ever witness for ourselves.
That horribly trashed backyard where an officer's body cam captured him placing the soup can of drugs. Those videos posted on Facebook that Sun reporter Kevin Rector wrote about on Aug. 18, showing three officers trying to subdue a suspect as a crowd formed, some shrieking or trying to interfere.
This is what we need to see, and address, if we ever hope to attack what underlies Baltimore crime problem: the deplorable condition of our neighborhoods, the distrust and antipathy toward police. No need to re-enact anything.