baltimore police evidence body cam
Baltimore PD release video to fight accusations
01:35 - Source: CNN

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Baltimore's police chief says his officers didn't do anything wrong

The state's attorney is investigating bodycam incidents

CNN  — 

In the ongoing national debate about proper policing, officer use of body cameras has been touted as a way to cut through conflicting accounts. But a string of recent controversies in Baltimore shows how even the video footage can be a source of controversy.

Baltimore police on Thursday released body camera footage they said removed all suspicions about officers’ handling of evidence in a drug case in June.

Earlier this week, the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office said the footage showed “questionable activity,” making it the third body camera video to emerge this month that has raised investigators’ concerns about possible police misconduct.

The video, compiled from two officers’ body-worn cameras during a June drug arrest, shows police in a park-like area. Initially, there is no audio, typical of the 30-second prerecorded buffer that occurs before the particular model of camera worn by Baltimore officers is turned on.

One officer is seen looking back in the direction of his colleague, then reaching into foliage and withdrawing a small pouch, which he examines, then returns to the ground. The officer wearing the camera then walks past the first officer, and the sound comes on, indicating that the camera has been activated. The camera turns to view the officer by the foliage again, who is reaching for the pouch for a second time. The wearer informs his colleague that he’s reaching into poison ivy. The pouch is retrieved, and the three officers (the two on screen and the one wearing the camera) walk toward the street.

The video then switches to the perspective of the officer retrieving the evidence. Again, there is no audio for the first 30 seconds. The officer is already looking at the ground through the leaves. He finds the pouch, picks it up, and looks inside. He pauses for a second, before putting the pouch back on the ground. He straightens up, the sound turns on: The camera has been activated. The officer retrieves the pouch and looks inside again.

Though the officers self-reported the incident, the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s office says their credibility is impacted because the officers’ body-worn cameras are turned on only after the discovery of evidence.

“That self-reporting doesn’t negate the fact that he recreated what he actually found,” State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said in a news briefing Thursday.

“None of the cameras were activated while the search for evidence was taking place,” her deputy, Michael Schatzow, added.

In contrast, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said the footage showed his officers handled the evidence properly.

“When our officer picks up the drugs he simultaneously realizes he doesn’t have his camera on, so he is not reenacting the recovery,” Davis said at a news conference. “In fact, another officer’s body-worn camera captures it. He is simply putting it down immediately and documenting where he got it from.”

The initial retrieval of the evidence was captured by the camera’s 30-second prerecording buffer, Davis said.

“This one is certainly not planting evidence. … It’s not even a reenactment. He maintained care and custody,” Davis said.

Police made footage from both body cameras publicly available.

Mosby disputed Davis’ conclusion in a dueling news conference, describing the matter as part of “an open and pending investigation” by the city’s Internal Affairs Division.

The officers seen in the video, whose names haven’t been publicly released, have not been disciplined.

At least 43 cases involving the officers in the latest video have been or are set to be dismissed as a result of this body camera footage, according to the State’s Attorney’s Office.

In cases where an arresting officer is later referred to the Internal Affairs Department, Mosby said the suspects’ cases may be postponed or dismissed altogether.

Such dismissals hinder the police department’s ability to do its job, Davis said.

“The decision to drop this particular case, and to drop other cases, was a bad call,” Davis said. “I don’t think that this decision helps the crime fight in any way shape or form.”

Long plagued by charges of corruption, the Baltimore Police Department has struggled to win public confidence.

Officials have been contending with the fallout from two other body camera videos that have come out this summer. One video, released by the Office of the Public Defender, appears to show an officer planting evidence at the scene of a drug arrest or recreating a drug discovery for the cameras. The public defender’s office says the other shows “multiple officers working together to manufacture evidence.”

CNN has reviewed the 16 body camera videos from the second incident, and they do not appear to conclusively show officers planting evidence. However, more than 450 cases have been impacted by those incidents, and more than 100 of those are postponed or have been dismissed.

In a news briefing earlier this month, Davis asked the public to wait for investigations to be completed.

“I think it’s irresponsible to jump to a conclusion that the police officers were engaged in criminal misconduct. That’s a heavy allegation to make,” he told reporters, adding that 62 Baltimore police officers have been disciplined for not having their body-worn cameras recording in the 16 months that the department has used the technology.

CNN’s Lauren del Valle contributed to this report.