Bodycam video appears to show Baltimore police officer planting evidence in drug bust, public defender says

An arrest was made in the incident, but prosecutors dropped the charges.

ByABC News
July 20, 2017, 5:48 PM

— -- Bodycam footage allegedly shows a Baltimore police officer tampering with evidence by planting what appears to be drugs, according to the Maryland Office of the Public Defender.

The video was taken on January 24 when three police officers were searching for drugs in a yard filled with debris, Baltimore Deputy Police Commissioner Jason Johnson said in a press release Wednesday.

The footage purports to show one of the officers hiding a bag of drugs in a can and then later "finding" the drugs, while two other officers "look on and take no action," the public defender's office said in a press release.

The officers were doing surveillance in the area when they observed an individual in jeans and a hooded sweatshirt engage in behavior that was "likely to be a drug transaction" when he went into and alley and later emerged, Johnson said. The officers also observed another individual step into the alley and emerge before getting into a blue car and driving away.

Police say they later stopped the individual who got in the car, and he turned in gel capsules of what police believed to be heroin. Another officer arrested the man in the hooded sweatshirt in a convenience store, and found him to be in possession of marijuana and gel capsules of suspected heroin, Johnson said.

Officers then went to the debris-filled yard where they were led to believe more heroin was stashed, after receiving information from the man involved in the traffic stop, Johnson said. While searching the yard, the officers found a bag of 25 pills of suspected heroin that was knotted at the top, indicating that there may be another stash -- in a bag that was not knotted -- where the drug dealer could more easily retrieve the drugs, Johnson said.

During the press conference, Johnson showed reporters four separate videos, which he said "depict the incident in greater totality." The first and second videos showed the traffic stop of the person who drove away, while the third video showed the man in the hooded sweatshirt, who police believe to be the drug dealer, being arrested at the convenience store. The fourth video showed the extensive search of the yard filled with debris.

The last video "sort of depicts what seems to be the discovery of a second bag of heroin, but in the early part of the video, it’s clear that that bag had actually been placed there by the police officer," Johnson said.

"I think it's fair to say the video purports to be the first discovery of that second bag containing heroin, but it's clear that, in fact, is not the first discovery of that particular bag,” Johnson said. “And, of course, that’s the video that we have all seen.”

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said investigators are looking into the “possibility” that the officers “replaced drugs that they had already discovered in order to document their discovery with their body-worn cameras on.”

No conclusions have been reached, Davis said, calling the allegations made by the public defender's office "as serious as it gets."

"If people need to be held accountable, they will be held accountable," Davis said.

In a statement, Melba Saunders, director of communications for the Office of the State’s Attorney for Baltimore City, the prosecutor’s office “immediately took the proper steps” to dismiss the case once the suspect’s defense attorney raised concerns about the body cam footage.

“Upon notification of this troubling footage, our office immediately implemented established protocols to not only refer this matter to the internal affairs division of the Baltimore Police Department but began identifying active cases involving these officers,” Saunders said.

The video has no sound for the portion where the evidence was allegedly planted, which suggests the sound was turned on shortly afterward, the public defender's office said.

“Body cameras have an important role to play in the oversight and accountability of police officers but only if they are used properly and the footage is taken seriously,” said Debbie Katz Levi, head of the Baltimore Public Defender’s Special Litigation Section. “Officers should not be able to decide when to turn the cameras on and off, and footage like what was presented here needs to result in immediate action by the State’s Attorney and the Police Department.”

The suspected drug seizures from the two individuals resulted in at least one criminal arrest, the public defender's office said. An assistant public defender who is representing the person facing drug charges in the incident forwarded the bodycam video to the state attorney's office last week, the public defender's office said.

The public defender's office said that while the prosecutor's office dropped the charges in the case, the officers involved are still witnesses in other active cases that are currently being pursued for prosecution in Baltimore City Circuit Court.

The officer who the public defender's office says planted the drugs is a witness in about 53 active cases, the public defender's office said.

“Officer misconduct has been a pervasive issue at the Baltimore Police Department, which is exacerbated by the lack of accountability.” Levi said. “We have long supported the use of police body cameras to help identify police misconduct, but such footage is meaningless if prosecutors continue to rely on these officers, especially if they do so without disclosing their bad acts.”

One of the three officers has been suspended and the other two police officers are on non-public contact police administrative duty, David said.

The Baltimore City Office of the State's Attorney did not immediately respond to ABC News' request for comment. ABC News could not immediately reach the officer allegedly shown tampering with evidence in the video. It is unclear if he has retained an attorney.