The Board of Estimates is scheduled today to approve payment of $250,000 to a man who says city police officers wrongfully detained him and deleted all the videos on his cellphone after he recorded them arresting a friend at the 2010 Preakness.
Although it “vigorously disputes Sharp’s allegations,” the city has agreed to settle the case because there are factual disputes and a potential for “an adverse jury verdict,” the law department says.
Christopher Sharp tells his version of the story in a video posted on this page devoted to the case on the website of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, which sued the BCPD on Sharp’s behalf.
Another bystander’s video of the May 15, 2010 incident (see below) shows Sharp’s friend pinned on the floor by police who appear to be hitting her and screaming at her. A pool of blood is visible beside her.
Someone can be heard saying, “How many times are you going to punch her?” while another voice asks, “Was that really necessary?”
“Let me get some bleach and water, maybe,” someone else says.
Sharp says in the ACLU video that he took out his cellphone and started filming when the police were breaking up a fight involving his friend. Police demanded his cellphone “as evidence” and he at first resisted.
Sharp tells in the video how he felt betrayed by a sergeant who “really calmed me down and made me feel at ease” and who “understood that I had videos on there of my son that I didn’t want anything done with.”
“I feel so stupid for believing him. . . He turns right around and wipes out everything and hands it back to me,”‘ Sharp said.
He claimed he lost the video of the arrest and other material on the phone as well, including family videos showing his young son at the state fair, the beach and soccer games. “They stole a year of my son’s life from me.”
Under the terms of the settlement, Sharp will receive $25,000 and the remainder, $225,000, goes to the ACLU of Maryland to cover legal costs they incurred pursuing the case over nearly three years.
“Veritable Witch Hunt”
Even before the announcement of the settlement, the case made headlines. A federal judge last year ordered city police to pay $1,000 for trying to intimidate Sharp as they gathered information in the case.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan Gauvey told the department to cease what she called “a veritable witch hunt” into Sharp’s personal life.
The ACLU characterizes the Sharp case as “pivotal” in spurring the U.S. Department of Justice in 2012 to issue an unprecedented legal statement on citizens’ rights to record police actions.
That advisory, sent to law enforcement agencies across the country, affirmed that citizens have a constitutional right to record police officers publicly performing their official duties.
But despite the legal victory affirming bystanders’ rights to video the police, similar incidents have occurred, including one just over the city line in Towson last month, for which a Baltimore County Auxiliary Police sergeant was put on administrative duty pending an investigation.
At the heart of the incident was a video that went viral showing what happened when police making arrests outside a York Road bar confronted a student filming the scene. The officer in the video can be seen telling him to stop and threatening arrest.
Sergio Guttierez, the 21-year-old University of Maryland, Baltimore County student who made the video, later discussed the incident with the Baltimore Sun, saying the officers pushed him.
“I thought I had freedom of speech,” Guttierez can be heard saying in the video.
“You don’t,” he is told by the officer. “You just lost it.”
Not just bystanders with cellphone cameras, but photographers working for local newspapers have encountered similar situations recently.
News Photographers Harassed
Baltimore City Paper contributing photographer Noah Scialom was covering a performance at the former Coward Shoe building on Howard Street last November when he was arrested by city police and charged with “disobeying a lawful order,” according to his account of the incident. (Police were shutting down the event, the latest in a series of police busts of DIY venues.)
Scialom described taking photos of the officers on the sidewalk outside the building and being “violently taken to the ground” by an officer, knocking his camera out of his hand and onto the pavement.
Baltimore Sun photo editor Chris Assaf, on the scene of a February 21 police-involved shooting , was taking photographs from outside the crime-scene perimeter when police told him to move across the street, according to a Sun blog post about the incident.
“While asking for the officer’s name, a second police officer grabbed Assaf and began pushing him across the street,” Robert Hamilton, the Sun’s director of photography writes. Baltimore Police say they are investigating the allegations.
New Policy Affirms Right to Film
On the heels of these recent cases – and in the wake of the $250,000 settlement – Baltimore Police released a new policy, spelling out citizens’ right to “video, record, photograph and/or audio record BPD members while BPD members are conducting official business or while acting in an official capacity n any public place unless such recordings interfere with.”
The parties also released a joint statement following the Board of Estimates approval of the settlement.
“The ACLU and Mr. Sharp recognize that the Baltimore Police Department’s current leadership has agreed to take steps to address the issues raised by this lawsuit and has engaged in diligent efforts to resolve this lawsuit in a positive and constructive manner,” the statement reads in part.
BPD said that all police officers will be trained on the new policy and that the department will track complaints about misconduct to ensure compliance.