Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
In Baltimore, criminal justice authorities may have finally figured out how to use police cam footage to achieve some semblance of justice.
In Baltimore, it’s starting to come into focus what good, if any, police body cameras can provide in the post-Freddie Gray era. On Tuesday, local criminal defense attorney Josh Insley released footage from a police cam that appears to show Baltimore officers colluding with each other to plant drugs in the car of his client Shamere Collins. Collins was charged with drug possession for that, but those charges have now been dropped thanks to public exposure of the police cam footage.
This was one of several dozen drug cases that the city’s embattled state’s attorney Marilyn Mosby dismissed last week because of alleged tampering and manufacturing of evidence caught on police cameras. The problem was first publicized when attorneys from the city’s public defender’s office released police cam footage of a separate incident on July 19 showing police allegedly planting drug evidence to arrest a suspect. Mosby’s office has since been investigating roughly 100 drug cases connected to a few Baltimore police officers who have been caught on video, saying that their credibility has “now been directly called into question.”
All together, these two incidents seem to confirm what the recent U.S. Justice Department investigation into the police department tried to tell us: That Baltimore’s “law enforcement practices at times exacerbate the longstanding structural inequalities in the City by encouraging officers to have unnecessary, adversarial interactions with community members that increase exposure to the criminal justice system and fail to improve public safety.”
Baltimore’s police department was one of the first from a major city to commit to equipping its officers with body cameras, and it is one of the largest departments to do so. The program was launched in May 2016, under a plan to assign cameras to 500 police officers at a time until the entire force is equipped next January. It was adopted with the full support of the local Fraternal Order of Police union—a group that has tried to block the rollout of such instruments in other cities’ police forces.
At the time, the union’s president Lt. Gene Ryan said camera footage would support their “assertions that our officers are highly trained law enforcement professionals.” The footage recently reviewed by the public defenders’ office seems to prove otherwise.
And yet, these small but significant victories don’t mean that body cams are all good in the land of police reform and accountability. There are still unresolved questions around the technology, such as how to protect the privacy rights of people who are captured on camera, who profits from sales of the equipment, who gets to access the footage, how long police are expected to store it, and how it should be used in investigations of police misconduct.
And of course, there’s the whole issue of making sure that police actually activate their body cameras in the line of duty. In the recent Minneapolis police-killing of Justine Damond, the officers who shot her did not have their cameras turned on. It also can’t be ignored that many of the high-profile police killings of the past few years were captured on both police and civilian cameras, but to no consequence for the officers recorded while killing those individuals.
In Baltimore County, where the force also uses body cams, police have shot six individuals this year—all of them caught on camera—but the county department has refused to release the footage in most of those cases. That’s the opposite of what the ACLU is suggesting should happen when police shoot civilians. The civil liberties organization recommends that any video involving that kind of police-caused violence should be released within five days of a public request.
What’s more, these recent Baltimore city police incidents call into question the very reliability of the video evidence that is recorded by police in the first place. Sure, the footage seems to expose police resorting to dirty practices to make arrests, but it also exposes how easy it is for police to manipulate a crime scene to serve their own purposes. It’s not just the integrity of the officers, but now the integrity of the video recordings that have been called into question—and that should extend to all police cam recordings archived thus far.
So far, police cam footage has produced only a few instances in which police were held accountable for brutality or misconduct, leading many to question its usefulness. But the recent activity in the city of Baltimore provides another small example of the value of this technology, when criminal justice authorities actually use it. The Baltimore police officers captured in the body cam footage are currently being investigated, and the suspects who the cops allegedly planted drugs on have been freed by prosecutors. The public defenders who exposed the footage are to thank for that, but their jobs would have been a lot more difficult if they had no camera footage to review in the first place.