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by Peter Moskos

July 19, 2017

"That’s quite a day’s work.”

Yesterday this video came out of Baltimore officer putting gel caps of heroin in a can, placing the can in trash in an alley, leaving the alley, and then "starting" his body cam and going to discover the heroin where he put it. Problem is, for the cops, the camera records video for 30 seconds preceding the press of the on button.

A man was arrested related to this and held on $50,000 bail. Nobody put up the 10 percent needed to get out, so he had been in jail for the past 7 months. He was released yesterday (eventually) after the video came out.

These seem to be possibilities, based on the video:

Option A: Dirty cops planted drugs on an innocent person.

Option B: Dirty cops planted drugs on a guilty person.

Option C: Dirty cops realized they forgot to turn on their body cameras, and decided to recreate the discovery, based on a true story.

Option D: Well-intentioned but stupid cops forgot to turn on their body cameras when the did find the drugs, and decided to recreate the discovery, inspired by a true story.

Option E: It's all some great misunderstanding and somehow this is acceptable police work.

I'm going to dismiss Option E, as has every cop I've spoken to.

Here's what makes this video so odd. Not exactly the "what," but the "why?" If you were planting drugs to frame an innocent (or guilty of something else) person, you'd plant the drugs on the person. It doesn't make sense to plant drugs in a stash because (absent other evidence) people in Baltimore City don't get prosecuted for a stash of drugs. This is why drug dealers use a stash (it also provides loss protection against robbery). You can't prove possession without a direct eyes-on chain-of-custody from person to stash. And even then you can't prove the stash belongs to a person who just happens to be reached into it.

I wrote about this kind of scenario in Cop in the Hood.

Could there be a chase of an innocent person, with drugs planted to provide probable cause for arrest? Could be in theory, but I don't think so here because the drugs were not planted in a place where somebody would throw them while running from cops. No, the drugs were placed in a can, in a drug stash. So maybe this was a reenactment based on a true story. This scenario, which is where I would place my money, is also the saddest. I mean, it was stupid, damaging to police, and harmful to the prosecution of criminals. It was also career ending directorial choice. And for what? That's what gets me about so-called "noble cause" corruption. Why? (See #3, below.)

Other issues:

1) $50,000 bail is a lot of bail, especially for a drug arrest in Baltimore.

2) Even after watching the video, the State's Attorney's office (the public prosecutor) at first only offered time-served. What the hell? It can't be said often enough what a disaster Marilyn Mosby, Baltimore City's elected State's Attorney, has been. Baltimore is a city without effective leadership at the top. One quality of leadership is to take responsibility for what happens under your watch. This does not happen in Baltimore. Bad leadership has consequences.

3) And it's always a good time to periodically repeat that almost all police corruption stems from drug prohibition. How's that war working out? You think the fifth decade will be charm? I don't. The war on drugs will not be won. And the damage from the fight -- to families, communities, incarceration, police -- is immense and entirely self-inflicted. Society could better deal with the problems of drug use without police.

And it's not that all drug cops are dirty. That's important to say not to defend cops, but to not excuse the dirty ones. Being involved in narcotics is not an excuse to be a dirty cop; that's on the cop. But if we want to get rid of police corruption on a systemic level, you need to get police out of the drug game. Just like we did with gambling: regulate and control the supply and distribution. Voila! Cops are no longer on the take with the numbers' racket.

But back to the issue at hand. In some ways this is all academic. (But hell, I am an academic.) I'd really like to read the arrest report and statement of probable cause. But there is no scenario where this video is good or defensible. Whether it's planting drugs or a dramatic re-enactment, it's bad. David Rocah is 100 percent correct. From Justin Fenton's and Kevin Rector's story in the Sun (well worth reading):
David Rocah, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Maryland, said that even “a faked recreation of officers finding the untied bag of drugs” would still be “potentially criminal” and should be a violation of police rules.

Rocah criticized the state’s attorney’s office for “the total lack of any apparent systemic response” to the incident, including putting the officer on the stand in another case after the video was flagged.

Rocah said it was “insane” that state laws that bar the disclosure of disciplinary records for police officers would prevent the public from seeing the results of the Police Department’s investigation or knowing how it punished the officers internally.

Rocah also said “there is zero reason to trust any video or any statement from any of these officers” given what was clearly observable in the video flagged by the public defender’s office.

“So even if it is indeed true that they simply staged a re-creation of finding the drugs, these officers have not only destroyed their own credibility, they have single-handedly destroyed the credibility of every piece of video where BPD officers find contraband without a clear lead-in that negates the possibility of it being staged,” Rocah said. "That’s quite a day’s work.”
Update: Indeed, this officer forgot to turn on his body-cam when he went and found the stash. So he decided to recreate the scene as it actually happened, potentially a firing offense. Counterfactually, had he simply fessed up (or been caught) failing to turn on his body camera, the departmental punishment would have been verbal counseling.


Andy D said...

FWIW the article linked below seems to claim there is a 2nd video that shows a lot more that makes it more likely that they were re-creating a scene after forgetting to turn their cameras on to show them finding it, and claims that this stemmed from an actual possession arrest.


philebersole said...

A very interesting post.

But I'm interested in the side question of how a video camera can be begin recording 30 seconds BEFORE the start button is pushed.

Can the camera foresee when it is going to be started? Or is it recording all the time, but only saves what id recorded after and immediately before the start botton is pushed.

Andy D said...

Most digital LE cameras are constantly recording. They constantly record a loop onto internal memory. The pre-event record time which shows up on the recording after activation can usually be set from 30s to 2 min. In my agency both our in-car cameras and our body cameras do it. Typically it is video only, no audio to comply with audio recording restrictions in teo party consent states (like Maryland)

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Sure, maybe the officer was (stupidly and illegally) recreating something that had actually happened.

But then there's this: http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/another-baltimore-police-body-cam-video-shows-officers-plant-drugs-n789396

Which goes a long way towards destroying any benefit of the doubt the Baltimore PD might get.

Peter Moskos said...

I don't know anything about the second case. But there's this: http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/crime/bs-md-ci-davis-video-response-20170802-story.html

"On Tuesday, Davis issued a memo reminding all officers to keep their body cameras on at all times at a crime scene or conducting an investigation, and warning that “under no circumstances” should they “attempt to recreate the recovery of evidence.”"

You would have thought that would go without saying. But apparently not.