Still via Facebook/Baltimore Police Department

City Police Commissioner Kevin Davis today tried to confront another case of body camera footage casting a shadow over his department, with public defenders once again asserting the videos suggest police officers allegedly planted drugs during an arrest.

At the podium today, Davis tried to make sense of the videos, which show a November 2016 traffic stop in Southeast Baltimore. Public defenders yesterday said the footage shows a group of seven officers failing to find any drugs during the traffic stop, turning their cameras off and then back on, and then “finding” a bag of drugs in a front seat compartment. The drugs were used as evidence to arrest two suspects.

Two weeks ago, the public defender’s office released body cam footage from a separate January drug arrest that appears to show Officer Richard Pinheiro stuffing a bag of narcotics into a soup can in a dirty backyard, walking back to two fellow officers and, similarly, then going back and “finding” it. The officers used the drugs as evidence to arrest the suspect. His case was later dropped after prosecutors reviewed the footage.

Police said Pinheiro was suspended, and the other two officers placed on administrative leave.

Davis acknowledged that such suspicious gaps in body camera footage don’t look so good, but argued they fall short of showing police engaging in criminal misconduct.

“While it’s ugly, and while I’m disappointed that officers in these two incidents recently did not have their cameras on, I think it’s irresponsible to jump to a conclusion that the police officers were engaged in criminal misconduct,” he said. “That’s a heavy allegation to make.”

The public defender’s office announced the second set of videos on Monday, after prosecutors had just dropped a case against the two defendants after reviewing the footage. A spokeswoman for the OPD said they wouldn’t be releasing the videos because one of the defendants was represented by a private defense attorney, but offered a walk-through of what was on the footage.

The OPD said prosecutors had referred two of the seven officers to the Baltimore Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division.

In the fallout from the January footage, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said her office has dropped 34 cases tied to the three officers. Davis said today that he respects Mosby’s decision to drop those cases after calling their credibility into question.

During the conference, the commissioner also touted the efficacy of the police department’s body camera program. Since its rollout in May 2016, police have sustained 14 misconduct cases involving officers – one with criminal charges – along with approximately 62 administrative incidents, he said.

Davis previously suggested that in the January case, the officer may have been trying to recreate the discovery of drugs at the scene on his body camera (which he noted would violate department policy), rather than planting evidence. Yesterday, Davis shared a copy of a memo he addressed to his rank-and-file officers with WBAL-TV, writing to officers, “under no circumstances shall you attempt to recreate the recovery of evidence after re-activating your body worn camera.”

Letter from @CommishKDavis stipulates when body-worn cameras should be activated, and not to recreate discovery of evidence.

— WBAL-TV 11 Baltimore (@wbaltv11) August 1, 2017

Asked about the memo today, he told reporters its purpose was to clarify the body camera policy to officers, though he didn’t acknowledge whether there’s an acceptable scenario in which an officer could recreate evidence discovery. He added, somewhat obviously, that doing so is “not acceptable because you’re contaminating the evidence.”

Police spokesman T.J. Smith confirmed that two of the seven officers from the November 2016 case have been referred to Internal Affairs, and said neither have been suspended. He noted that investigating all seven officers “is part of the totality of the investigation.”

Davis summed up much of the controversy as “growing pains” for the Baltimore Police Department as it implements its body camera program. To date, he said, police have activated 1,501 of the devices.

He also suggested that even amid the allegations of officer misconduct, the BPD could serve as an example to other law enforcement agencies.

“A lot of police departments around the country are going to benefit from our growing pains,” he said.

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...