Body-camera video shows Baltimore cops planting drugs in car, attorney says

For the second time in as many weeks, Baltimore police body-camera video has emerged showing what defense attorneys say is officers planting drugs on a criminal defendant.

Josh Insley, a local defense attorney, released the footage Tuesday, a day after the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office dropped all charges against his client based on concerns raised by the video. Insley said he believes the video shows officers “engage in what appears to be a staged recovery of narcotics,” and that he will be pursuing legal action against the police department.

The video, which represents the latest in a string of controversial incidents for a police department confronting historic violent crime, is under investigation, police said.

Insley’s client, Shamere Collins, 35, was arrested on Nov. 29, 2016 after police stopped her vehicle after observing a passenger conducting what officers believed was a drug deal, according to case records. After stopping the vehicle, police said they smelled marijuana, searched the car, and recovered heroin and marijuana. Charges were filed against Collins and the passenger.

“Those drugs were not in that car when we were pulled out, the state dismissed the case against me and my attorneys are reviewing the tapes to see what steps to take next,” Collins said in a statement.

The existence of the footage was first made public by the office of the Baltimore public defender, which represented Collins in the criminal case, when it announced Monday that charges had been dropped. That office said the video “appears to depict multiple officers working together to manufacture evidence.”

On Tuesday, it provided a fuller description, saying the footage — which is a series of body-camera videos — shows multiple officers thoroughly searching a car, including the driver’s area, and then turning their cameras off and back on in an unexplained way.

“When the cameras come back on one officer is seen squatting by the driver’s seat area. The group of officers then wait approximately 30 seconds,” the public defender’s office said in a statement. “Shortly thereafter, another officer asks if the area by that compartment has been searched. Nobody responds, and the officer reaches in and locates a bag that appears to contain drugs right by where the prior officer was, and where the car had been thoroughly searched about a half an hour prior with absolutely no results.”

A review of the time-stamped footage, which was obtained by The Baltimore Sun on Tuesday and authenticated by the police department, showed that series of events.

In one video, time-stamped about 11:50 p.m., an officer is seen searching the driver’s side. He spends about a minute searching the area, finding nothing.

In a second video, time-stamped about 12:20 a.m., officers are seen standing around as one officer asks if anyone had searched the area near the driver’s seat. He begins searching and almost immediately comes up with a bag of alleged drugs.

In a third video, also time-stamped about 12:20 a.m. and recorded from the body camera of the officer conducting the search, the officer can be seen pulling the bag from the driver’s seat area, which he suggests contains marijuana and other drugs.

Police said the officer who found the drugs was not the same officer who had initially searched the driver’s area, and had a better sense of where to search because he had been conducting surveillance prior to the traffic stop.

The officers in the video have not been named.

The video is the latest incident to throw into question the actions of Baltimore officers at a time when the city is experiencing staggering levels of crime and facing sweeping changes to its police department mandated by a federal consent decree.

There have been 205 homicides in Baltimore this year, putting the city on a record pace. The most per-capita homicides in city history occurred in 2015, when there were 344, and 2016, when there were 318. Before 2015, there had not been 300 or more homicides in a single year since the 1990s, when there were about 100,000 more residents living in the city.

Last summer, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a scathing report in which investigators said the police department engaged in widespread discriminatory and unconstitutional policing practices, particularly in poor, predominantly black neighborhoods. The city and the Justice Department later entered into a consent decree that mandates reforms and is in its early stages. An independent monitor, who will report directly to a federal judge, has yet to be appointed.

In March, seven police officers on an elite Gun Trace Task Force were indicted on federal racketeering charges alleging they robbed citizens, filed false court paperwork and committed overtime fraud. Two of those officers have pleaded guilty. Others have pleaded not guilty; one has not entered a plea.

The public defender’s announcement Monday of the existence of video in Collins’ case followed a news conference by Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby last week, in which she said two police body-camera videos were under review.

The first was one previously released by the public defender’s office about two weeks ago. In that video, the office said a police officer can be seen placing a bag of alleged drugs among debris in a backyard lot, walking out to the street, activating his body camera — which had automatically recorded 30 seconds before activation — and then returning to the alley and recovering the same bag.

Police suspended the officer, Officer Richard Pinheiro. They placed two others seen watching Pinheiro in the footage, Officers Hovhannes Simonyan and Jamal Brunson, on administrative duty pending an investigation.

Police also released several other body-camera videos from that incident that they said showed officers legitimately finding drugs in the alley and on a buyer and a seller involved in an initial drug deal that had prompted the police action that day. They said they were investigating, among other things, whether the video in question showed the officers “reenacting” a legitimate discovery of drugs that had not initially been recorded as it should have been.

Mosby said she has dropped or will drop 41 felony drug and gun cases against defendants that rely on the testimony of the officers featured in that video. She said 55 additional cases are under review, while 27 will move forward on the strength of independent, corroborative evidence.

The second body-camera video that Mosby mentioned last week was one that one of her prosecutors flagged as potentially of concern and forwarded to the Internal Affairs division of the Baltimore Police Department, she said. She said prosecutors have been reviewing hundreds of cases linked to the officers in that video. She said five cases have been dropped and two have been postponed so far.

Mosby’s office put out a statement urging caution in judging video before an investigation has been conducted.

As with the video released two weeks ago, police spokesman T.J. Smith said the department is investigating whether the video in Collins’ case depicts a reenactment. He stressed that police have not come to any conclusions in either case. No officers in Collins’ case have been reprimanded or had their status changed, he noted.

On Tuesday, The Sun obtained a memo issued to all Baltimore police personnel by Police Commissioner Kevin Davis that reminded officers to record investigations and warned against re-creations.

“In light of recent events, you are reminded to activate your body worn camera at the initiation of a call for service or other activity that is investigative or enforcement-related (e.g., crime scene, car stop, or pedestrian stop). If you are on-scene where a search for evidence or property inventory is being conducted, your body worn camera shall remain activated until you leave the scene so as to capture all of the circumstances surrounding the recovery of evidence,” Davis wrote.

“In the event your body worn camera is not activated during the recovery of evidence, under no circumstances shall you attempt to recreate the recovery of evidence after re-activating your body worn camera.”

The police union has warned against a rush to judgment about the videos before the conclusion of the multiple investigations.

krector@baltsun.com

twitter.com/rectorsun

Copyright © 2017, The Virginia Gazette
54°