Body-worn cameras, being adopted by increasing numbers of police departments, have prompted divided opinion among both law enforcement agencies and civil liberties groups. Some voice concern over possible invasion of the privacy of those whose images are captured, while others argue the cameras can provide useful evidence and make police actions more transparent.
The position that body cameras help detect police misconduct seems to be getting the better part of the argument in several cities recently. The Los Angeles Police Department earlier this month announced that it’s investigating possible misconduct by at least one of its officers, after a defense lawyer for a defendant charged with drug possession and other offenses claimed video from a police bodycam showed a police officer inserting a packet of cocaine into the defendant’s wallet shortly before arresting him.
In that July incident, a man who had been in an auto collision was arrested on hit-and-run, illegal possession of a handgun, and possession of cocaine. A bodycam video, played in open court, revealed a police officer picking up a packet containing white powder off the street, tucking it into the defendant’s wallet, and telling other nearby officers he’d found the packet there. When the footage was aired on local television news, it drew a strong public reaction.
While that incident is in the early stages of investigation, video footage from a similar episode in Baltimore earlier this year illustrates the impact bodycams can have. It starts by showing three city policemen standing in a narrow, junk-strewn alleyway. Then a lone policeman is seen returning to that spot, holding a can into which he places a plastic bag containing white-colored pills. Seconds later, the same officer comes back to the same spot, picks up the can from the ground, and pulls the plastic bag out of the can. The next footage shows the three officers confronting a defendant who was arrested on charges of drug possession.
Why was the officer who clearly manipulated evidence so obvious in putting drugs in the can, placing it in the alleyway and then “discovering” the “evidence” he had planted there? It may be because bodycams are relatively new in Baltimore, having only been introduced in 2016 and not yet fully deployed, so the policeman may not have known, or may have forgotten, the city’s bodycams are programmed to retain the last 30 seconds of footage before the bodycam is activated – so he might not have realized his manufacturing of evidence right before he turned on his bodycam would be captured.
When the defendant’s lawyer found evidence of the attempted framing, prosecutors quickly dropped the charges against that defendant, and began reviewing more than 100 cases where those members of the force had filed charges or were scheduled to serve as witnesses.
Dozens of pending cases, involving a variety of drug, weapons and other charges, were dropped, said Marilyn J. Mosby, the state’s lead prosecutor for Baltimore, because they were viewed as hinging on accounts given by the three officers involved in the evidence-manufacturing incident, whose “credibility… has now been directly called into question.” The officer who had filmed himself filling, hiding and appearing to discover the drug-filled can was suspended, and his two colleagues went on administrative leave.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.