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Take your own advice, commissioner: don't rush to defend officers accused of wrongdoing

Kevin Davis, Baltimore Police Commissioner, comments on the missing video footage from police body cameras. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

I understand Police Commissioner Kevin Davis' impulse in wanting to stand up for his officers after two body camera videos appeared to show them staging drug recoveries in separate incidents. After all, we don't really know what the recordings show, just what we think they show, and his department already has its hands full dealing with allegations of corruption and brutality. He doesn't want to take more hits than he has to.

But the way he went about it — much like the way our president recently suggested cops are "too nice" to suspects — is no way to support law-abiding law enforcement in Baltimore or to build trust in the community.

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In a press conference Wednesday, Mr. Davis emphasized the legitimacy of the arrests made in each case while downplaying the misconduct of his guys — and make no mistake, the involved officers messed up, whether they were "re-enacting" the discovery of drugs to use as evidence, as the department has suggested, or physically planting them. The only thing up for debate is the degree of wrongdoing. That there were drugs properly recovered in each of these cases outside the scope of these videos is irrelevant. It's the conduct in the videos that matters.

The public defender's office says this police body camera footage from a January drug arrest shows an officer placing a bag of drugs in a trash strewn lot. The officer can then be seen walking to the street, where he flips on his body camera, returns to the lot and picks up a soup can containing a bag of drugs. 

Police cameras have a feature that saves 30 seconds of video prior to activation, but without audio. When the officer is first in the alley, there is no audio until 30 seconds later.

In the first, released last month by the Maryland Public Defender's Office, one officer is shown placing a can with a baggie in it into a trash-strewn yard as two others look on. He then walks away, reaches up to turn on his body camera — apparently not realizing it continuously records and then stores the 30 seconds of video shot immediately before activation — and walks back to "find" (in less than a minute) the baggie, apparently containing drugs. In the second, also released by a public defender, officers search a car for drugs, finding nothing. Then their cameras are turned off; when they're turned back on, another officer quickly finds a bag that police say contained marijuana and heroin.

Josh Insley, a private attorney for Shamere Collins, said he and Collins believe the video supports her claim that police planted drugs in the vehicle, and will be pursuing legal options against the department. (Baltimore Police body camera footage provided by Josh Insley)

At worst, the officers in the videos are guilty of framing people by planting drugs. Clearly wrong, clearly damaging to the department's already soiled reputation. At best, the officers are guilty of violating rules that require them to keep their body cameras on during an investigation, and then recreating a discovery after failing to capture it the first time. Still wrong, still damaging to the department's reputation.

Once the officers missed the big reveal, the right thing to do would have been to take their lumps for breaking the rules and prove the case the old fashioned way, without video. Re-enacting the event and passing it off as the real thing to be used in court still fits the definition of manufacturing evidence. And it gives the rest of us further reason to be suspicious of police; if they were willing to fudge it here, where else?

And why were the cameras off, anyway? Unless the multiple officers on each scene had some kind of group memory failure, each forgetting to activate their cameras, there's only one good reason: The wearers had something to hide.

Mr. Davis cautioned against a rush to judgment, and he may have a point. But it's a big ask given the depths to which the department's credibility has sunk: witness the recent racketeering charges against members of an elite gun unit; the 2016 Department of Justice report revealing "systemic failures" in the BPD's efforts to police itself; and the catalytic death of Freddie Gray, which put the department under a national microscope.

Many of us thought of Gray last week when President Donald Trump told a gathering of New York police officers that they shouldn't "be too nice" to "thugs" being thrown in the back of a "paddy wagon." Gray, of course, received a fatal injury in the back of a Baltimore police van in 2015 after being picked up for running from officers. Dondi Johnson Sr. wound up paraplegic following an arrest for public urination and van ride in 2005. And Jeffrey Alston was paralyzed from the neck down in 1997 after being stopped for speeding and arrested on suspicion of drunk driving.

But don't be "too nice" to these undeserving "thugs."

In a statement, the commissioner of the New York Police Department, James O'Neill, responding to the president's remarks by saying the suggestion that "police officers apply any standard in the use of force other than what is reasonable and necessary is irresponsible, unprofessional and sends the wrong message to law enforcement as well as the public."

That's what Mr. Davis should have understood about his own comments, which appeared to set history aside and back up these officers before all of the information was in. There are too many good cops on the force — and nervous residents in the city — to send a message of tolerance for misbehavior.

Tricia Bishop is The Sun's deputy editorial page editor. Her column runs every other Friday. Her email is tricia.bishop@baltsun.com; Twitter: @triciabishop.

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