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What we learn when the body cameras stay on

A Baltimore cop is suspended and a man released from jail after footage appeared to show the officer planting drugs.

A man sits on a bicycle in front of a line of police officers in riot gear ahead of a 10p.m. curfew in the wake of riots following the funeral for Freddie Gray, April 2015, in Baltimore. CREDIT: AP Photo/David Goldman
A man sits on a bicycle in front of a line of police officers in riot gear ahead of a 10p.m. curfew in the wake of riots following the funeral for Freddie Gray, April 2015, in Baltimore. CREDIT: AP Photo/David Goldman

After a high-profile police killing and scathing Department of Justice investigation into its practices, the Baltimore Police Department is back in the news for the most unsavory reasons: an officer’s body camera footage that appears to show him planting drugs at the scene of an arrest.

The city’s troubled police force is still struggling to put aside the controversy over the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray. In that awful incident, the 25-year-old black man died in police custody after being arrested. The case sparked outrage among activists, largely because video footage showed aggressive police handling of Gray before he died a week later of spinal cord injuries.

Six officers faced charges in connection with his death. None of the officers were convicted, as their trials ended either in a hung jury, not guilty verdicts or being dropped after state’s attorneys were unable to proceed with prosecutions. Through it all, however, the entire episode sparked days of rioting, drew negative international attention to the city, and focused a harsh spotlight on a police force with a history of abusive behavior directed toward black Baltimore residents.

Worse, an Obama administration investigation found last year that Baltimore police disproportionately targeted African Americans for criminal activity. Justice Department officials released a harsh 163-page report, showing the “pattern and practices” of racial differences in stops, searches, and arrests in Charm City were so prevalent as to be “intentional discrimination.”

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Of all the places in the United States, Baltimore is last one that anyone should suspect of fresh police misbehavior. Wrong.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said earlier this week during a news conference that his internal affairs department is looking to what appears to be video footage captured on January 24 of an officer planting illicit drugs at a crime scene.

“This is a serious allegation of police misconduct,” Davis said. “There is nothing that deteriorates the trust of any community more than thinking for one second that uniformed police officers, or police officers in general, would plant evidence of crimes on citizens.”

Indeed, no one might have known anything other than the Baltimore officers’ cinema verite of their drug bust, if the public defenders’ office hadn’t turned over the uncut version to state authorities. Lawyers representing the unnamed Baltimore man, who had been held in jail since his arrest at the time of the purported drug bust, used the whole video to have their client released last week.

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In the video, Officer Richard Pinheiro can be seen standing in the debris-filled backyard of a row house with two other police officers. At the start of the footage, Pinheiro holds a soup can with a clear plastic bag stuffed into it. He puts the can under some of the trash and leads his partners away from the spot through a narrow access alley to the sidewalk on the front of the house. Pinheiro, then, turns on his his body-cam and shouts to his fellow officers that he’s going to inspect the backyard.

“I’m gonna go check here, hold on,” the officer is heard to say. Once in the backyard, he’s seen picking up the soup can, pulling out the plastic baggie and showing it to the camera. “Yo,” he shouts to the other officers. “Hold up.”

What appeared to be good police work was undone by the officer apparently forgetting or being unaware that the body cam had recorded his earlier actions — the initial placement of the drugs in the soup can. According to a report in the Baltimore Sun, “police cameras have a feature that saves the 30 seconds of video before activation, but without audio.”

Busted. Or so it seems. Pinheiro has been suspended and two of his partners are on administrative duty, police said, as the incident is being investigated.

“I’m not saying that there was a re-creation of the discovery of the drugs,” Davis said. “But it’s certainly a possibility that we’re looking into, to see if the officers in fact replaced drugs that they had already discovered, in order to document their discovery with their body-worn cameras on.”

A critical takeaway from this sordid example of shoddy police work is that high-tech policing — specifically body cameras — will keep police honest as they go about their dangerous duties.

Wrong, again.

If used properly, body cameras offer a window into the rigorous procedures citizens expect of those sworn to protect and serve. Indeed, the ACLU has led the fight to expand police use of the devices, going so far as to herald their use in a 2015 report that called them “a win-win, helping protect the public against police misconduct, and at the same time helping protect police against false accusations of abuse.”

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But that’s only true if they’re used properly. In fact, all too often the cameras aren’t functioning when they’re most needed. Last year, a Charlotte, North Carolina police officer turned on his body-cam after only after his fatal shooting of Keith Scott, a violation of department procedures that call for switching on the camera as soon as an officer responds to a call.

More recently, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges complained in a blog post that it was “unacceptable” that there’s no body camera footage of the fatal police shooting of an Australian woman in her city last weekend, another case that has drawn international scrutiny and criticism.

As each of these incidents painfully demonstrate, in the hands of unscrupulous or careless officers, body cameras aren’t magic bullets to guarantee police accountability. Video can be manipulated to tell a lie. Technology is a tool; it will never be as effective a substitute for solid, reputable and honest policing.