Body Cameras in Baltimore: Black, White, and (Freddie) Gray
August was a particularly brutal month for the Baltimore Police Department’s credibility. From July 20th to August 21st, three separate severe incidents of officer misconduct came to light. This is particularly disheartening as these body cameras were put in place last May to restore public confidence in a department long plagued by charges of corruption. These incidents hit even harder as the Baltimore Police Department was still reeling from their March debacle in which seven Baltimore officers were federally charged with robbing citizens, filing false reports and claiming overtime fraudulently. Despite this disturbing pattern it also speaks to body camera’s effectiveness. Without them, the behavior of the police in these incidents would undoubtedly have never come to light and these innocent defendants would still be sitting in jail, either awaiting trial or falsely charged with crimes they didn’t commit.
While none of these videos conclusively prove beyond a reasonable doubt that this wasn’t a “restaging” of evidence previously found, these videos do undeniably demonstrate breaches of police department protocol and the law. The first March video shows an officer placing a plastic bag containing narcotics into a food can, then tucking it under a piece of debris. Thankfully for the defendant, and unbeknownst to the officer, Baltimore’s body worn cameras start recording thirty seconds before officers manually turn them on. In this instance, the audio began with the officer saying, "I'm going to check here. Hold on," while his colleagues laughed. The officer then took a cursory onceover of the trash strewn yard and “discovered ” the narcotics in the can.
Later, during the first week of August, seven Baltimore Police Officers were once again involved in nationwide controversy after body camera video emerged that appeared to show them planting drugs in Shamere Collins’ car during a November traffic stop. They conducted a thorough search of the vehicle, weren’t able to find any drugs, and can be heard on one of the officer’s body camera audio recording expressing his frustration that they came up with nothing and that there'd be negative consequences if they didn't recover drugs and make an arrest. Their body cams were then turned off, and were turned back on one after another, in the background audio one officer can be heard telling another, "No, you weren't supposed to turn yours on." Shortly after they were turned back on the officer’s “find” drugs close to a driver’s side door compartment. While none of the officers have been suspended, two of the officers have been referred to Internal Affairs.
The third incident of the month came to light August 24th when officers came forward to their superiors about planting evidence to re-stage a June arrest. Even when faced with seemingly overwhelming video evidence of officer misconduct, Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis stated “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.” Thankfully, the State’s Attorney’s Office is reviewing the hundreds of cases these officers worked on for sufficiency of the evidence in the absence of officer testimony, and forty-three cases against potentially innocent civilians have already been dismissed.
Incidents like these call into question the extreme deference given to officer’s recollection of events concerning interactions with suspects. Despite one of the innocent defendant’s sitting in jail for months, no charges have been filed against any of the officers in question. This understandably has caused deep frustrations, with ACLU of Maryland Senior Staff Attorney David Rocah remarking “The fact that the officers have not yet been criminally or administratively charged is itself not just a travesty, but further evidence of the deep, systemic problems with accountability in this agency.”
The incredibly complex issue of negative police community interactions has no simple solution, but body cameras are proving to be an important first step. In the wake of outrage in Ferguson, former President Barack Obama announced that he would seek to provide $263 million to buy body cameras for police departments and provide training in their use. Ultimately, Congress only approved a $75 million dollar plan, to be allocated over three years. These funds were tied to four requirements. There was a financial requirement that the department receiving the grant match the amount of funding provided by the federal government. Additionally, there were three procedural requirements, the receiving agency had to: (1) establish a strong implementation plan, (2) have a robust training policy, and (3) have developed a plan for long-term storage, including the cost of storage.
While Baltimore was still reeling from the death of Freddie Gray, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake utilized this funding to begin a body camera pilot program. However, when there was a proposal for expansion of body cam use brought in December, she vetoed the proposal that would have required officers to wear cameras because she didn't believe the costs and other considerations were sufficiently taken into account. City officials estimated costs up to $2.6 million a year for storage and the extra staff. The group putting up most opposition is unsurprisingly police departments themselves, who cite the high costs of data retention, the inability of a single perspective to fully encapsulate the entire experience, and what level of access the public should have to the footage. Additionally, there is the issue of privacy that both citizens and police officers have raised.
Body cameras are a relatively recent innovation and research is still ongoing. The studies that have been completed yield promising results. One such study monitored officers over the course of the year, those that were randomly assigned to wear body cameras used force half as often as those who did not and had only one-tenth as many citizen complaints filed against them. In another study of 2000 police officers in a range of departments, researchers found a 93% reduction in complaints against officers when they were wearing body cameras. The results of these studies affirm the claims that advocates for their use have been alleging, namely a reduction in both unfounded complaints and police aggression. While helpful, this data is not to say that body cameras are some sort of panacea for the tremendous and complex problem of negative police community interactions. Yet, one can’t help but wonder: if Lieutenant Brian Rice and his fellow officers had been wearing cameras, would Freddy Gray be alive today?