Baltimore prosecutors are investigating police body camera footage that a public defender says shows a cop planting a bag of heroin capsules at an arrest scene.
The video, from a January drug arrest, shows Officer Richard Pinheiro , who was on the force since 2011, in an alleyway by a debris-filled lot, place a bag full of white capsules inside an empty soup can, while two other officers look on.
Police body cameras have a feature that will save 30 seconds of video before the cam is activated, but without any audio.
After placing the drugs in the soup can, Pinheiro walks back to the street, and activates his body camera. “I’m gonna go check here,” you hear him say. He walks back down the alley, to the lot, picks up the soup can, and “discovers” the sack of drugs.
After the public defender’s office released the footage, the Baltimore Police Department suspended Pinheiro and placed the two other officers on administrative leave.
Deborah Levi, who tracks police misconduct for the public defender’s office, showed the video to prosecutors last week. After they saw the video, they dropped the heroin possession charge against the man arrested at the scene, who has been in jail since January because he wasn’t able to post $50,000 bail, the Baltimore Sun reported.
But Michael Wood, a former Baltimore cop of 11 years, who exposed corruption and misconduct in the department in 2015, is urging people not to rush to conclusions.
Police Commissioner Kevin Davis says that police were looking into the possibility that, rather than planting anything, the officer was “re-creating” the moment when he found the drugs and documenting it with his body camera on. Davis told reporters Wednesday that even if the video was a re-creation, it still showed “an officer apparently placing evidence and recovering evidence in a way that is inconsistent with the way police officers do business.”
“I would have done a re-creation after every single drug bust I did,” Wood said, noting the high arrest quotas that cops were expected to make on a daily basis. “Baltimore police are being so ready and willing to cooperate at this point, that suggests to me that they know there is nothing there.”
If you’re making hundreds of drug busts, Wood says, it can be hard to recall the exact lighting or surroundings, which an officer may later be asked to do in court. “You have to document these things,” Wood said.
But that’s not to say that cops don’t plant evidence, although Wood says he never saw it happen himself during his 11 years on the force. “What you see more of, is not planting, but creating a loose connection,” Wood said. “Someone’s in the area, you find drugs in a flower pot, you stretch practical reality, just so they can justify putting handcuffs on a person.”
Although he’s not totally convinced that the video shows a cop planting evidence, he’s equally unconvinced it’s a re-creation. “I’m weighted on the side of a cop acting improperly.”
According to Phil Stinson, a criminology professor and former police officer at Bowling Green University who tracks police misconduct nationwide, there have been 36 cases where an officer was arrested for planting evidence in a drug-related crime between 2005 and 2012, but he thinks that doesn’t reflect how often that particular crime happens.
“My view is that planting evidence happens far more often than we know,” Stinson said. “Most police crime goes undetected, unreported, ignored, encouraged.”
The Baltimore PD has been under intense scrutiny over the last few years since the in-custody death of Freddie Gray, which prompted citywide riots, and led to an investigation by the Department of Justice into Baltimore’s policing practices, culminating in a damning report that identified pervasive racial bias throughout the department. In January, Baltimore entered into a consent decree with the DOJ, a court order binding it to implement the reforms recommended by Justice Department investigators. In March, seven Baltimore police officers were indicted on federal racketeering charges. Meanwhile, Baltimore is one of the handful of cities whose soaring murder rates has recently driven the national homicide rate up by about 15 percent.