Were drugs planted by Baltimore police officers?
Or did officers who had turned off their cameras stage a recreation of evidence they had legitimately found earlier?
Either way, the incident has shattered trust in the police and starkly highlighted the limitations of body-worn cameras, a University of Baltimore School of Law professor says.
“Both are bad and, yes, we can come up with a hierarchy – planting evidence to incriminate someone who has done nothing wrong feels worse,” said associate professor David Jaros, discussing this week’s release of body camera footage the public defender’s office said shows an officer planting drugs.
“But to manipulate evidence still strikes at the heart of the foundation of the criminal justice system,” Jaros said.
Defending the agency, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis yesterday released additional video and said it could possibly show officers “replacing drugs” to “document their discovery.”
Jaros said that flies in the face of complex rules of evidence gathering.
“If we cannot trust the police to collect evidence properly,” he said, “it casts doubt on not just the police, but the entire system that relies on them as it tries to get to the truth.”
More Than “Bad Apples”
Jaros said there are parallels with the disturbing video evidence that has surfaced in cases across the country where there are allegations of police officers using force inappropriately with citizens, often African-American men.
“In both, it’s a situation where what is captured on camera validates what people have been saying for a long time but had been unable to prove,” he said.
In the Baltimore police footage, which the public defender said was recorded during a drug arrest in January, an officer places a soup can containing a bag of pills in a trash strewn lot.
After the public defender’s office alerted prosecutors to the presence of the footage, the heroin possession charges against the man who had been arrested were dropped. But the man, unable to post bail, had aleady at that point spent six months in jail.
“Considering the seriousness of the allegation here we must not assume it’s the first time this has happened,” Jaros said. “This is too troubling to say “Oh it’s just one bad apple that can be ignored.’”
With the city relying heavily on body cameras to help expose police misconduct – Baltimore police have more than 1,500 of them, Davis said – the latest incident has “scary implications,” Jaros observed.
“It really erodes our hope for how much of this problem can be solved with body cameras,” he said, “if they can be used, instead of for providing evidence, to manipulate it.”
Pleas and Privacy
Could police officers be made to keep their body cameras on all the time? That’s problematic, Jaros said, citing privacy issues involving domestic situations or their own private conversations or even going to the bathroom.
Jaros said the problem is complex, police officers have an extremely challenging job and this incident should not be used “to smear all police officers as not being truthful.”
But he said there are important questions raised by the footage that require reviewing more than just the cases where the officer involved has testified.
Any case where his body camera footage was used and there was a plea would merit re-examination, he said, noting that the defendant could be intimidated into taking a plea based on the presence of manipulated footage.
Jaros said it’s helpful to consider that question judges are required to ask potential jurors: “Would you be more or less likely to believe testimony knowing it came from a police officer?”
“If I were a juror and knew about this,” he said, “I would be filled with doubts.”