Still via footage from the Office of the Public Defender

Some body camera footage released by public defenders appears to show questionable evidence-handling by a Baltimore police officer.

As first reported by Fox45’s Joy Lepola and the Baltimore Sun’s Justin Fenton, the footage timestamped Jan. 24, 2017, shows a city police officer standing next to two other officers and placing a bag of pills into an aluminum can at the back of a house in an alley. He then walks down the alley to a sidewalk and, thinking his body camera wasn’t already recording, switches it on. He then walks back to the spot and makes a half-hearted search before “finding” the drugs.

Here’s the video, courtesy of Fenton:

Footage shows officer placing drugs in trash; goes out to street, turns on camera, returns. Cams save 30 sec prior to activation, w/o sound

— Justin Fenton (@justin_fenton) July 19, 2017

The timestamp on the video indicates the footage was captured by an Axon body camera. According to the company’s website, its cameras run for 30 seconds when in “buffering” mode, recording video without audio. The officer may not have been aware it was in that mode when he initially walked over to the spot with the drugs in the can.

Police wound up using the evidence from the case to charge a suspect with drug-related offenses. However, the defendant – who Fenton said was being held on $50,000 bail – was later released after his public defender informed prosecutors about the footage, which led the State’s Attorney’s Office to ultimately drop the charges.

It remains unclear what exactly the officer was doing. He could have been recreating his discovery of the drugs used as evidence in the case or, worse, planted the evidence at the scene.

The Office of the Public Defender has asserted that the video clearly shows the police officer planting evidence that was used to charge the defendant. The one wearing the body camera is Officer Richard Pinheiro, who the office says is a witness in 53 other active cases.

Debbie Katz Levi, head of the public defender’s office’s Special Litigation Section, expressed concern that Pinheiro is still allowed to testify in other criminal cases, given his depicted behavior.

“Officer misconduct has been a pervasive issue at the Baltimore Police Department, which is exacerbated by the lack of accountability,” she said in a statement. “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.”

At a press conference on Wednesday afternoon, police released additional body cam footage from other officers at the scene that showed the arrest of the suspect, and of officers searching the area beforehand and finding another bag of suspected heroin that was knotted at the top. The bag shown in the above video was therefore a second one found during the search, police said.

Commissioner Kevin Davis told reporters the initial video “by its lonesome…doesn’t paint as clear of a picture that we would like to offer to the community right now.”

The department is reviewing all of the footage to determine whether Officer Pinheiro committed criminal conduct or violated administrative procedure, he said.

Baltimore Police equipped officers with body cams starting in May 2016. The department has a five-year, $11.6 million contract with Axon, formerly Taser International, to equip, store and maintain the devices. The footage from them has proved useful over the last year, offering up-close views of controversial incidents involving officers, including one in which police shot a mentally ill man waving two knives around in Waverly.

Davis said he’s aware of heightened sensitivity to police misconduct, given the March arrests of seven BPD officers who were allegedly involved in a theft and racketeering ring. He also said it’s “not part of our business model to reenact recovery of contraband,” if that’s indeed what Pinheiro was doing with the second bag, and acknowledged why the initial video “takes people aback.”

“At the end of it all…I will call balls and strikes,” Davis said. “And if people need to be held accountable, they will be held accountable.”

This story has been updated.

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Ethan McLeod

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...