The Baltimore Police Department has suspended an officer after a short video that appears to show him planting drugs in a trash-strewn yard went viral Wednesday.
The 90-second video was recorded on Officer Richard Pinheiro’s body camera, according to the Maryland public defender’s office. The footage, from Jan. 24, shows Pinheiro placing a plastic bag into a red can and hiding it among the trash as two other officers watch him. All three officers then walk down an alley and onto a sidewalk, where Pinheiro turns on his body camera, which is designed to automatically record the 30 seconds of video (without sound) prior to activation.
Once the camera is activated, Pinheiro can be heard saying, “I’m going to check here,” before walking back to the yard. Pinheiro retrieves the plastic bag from the red can and calls out to the other two officers.
The state attorney’s office dismissed the case against the drug suspect after an assistant public defender, who represented the man, forwarded them the video last week, according to a news release from the city’s public defender’s office.
The suspect had been in jail since January in lieu of $50,000 bail he could not pay, The Baltimore Sun reported.
The footage below shows recording from Pinheiro’s camera as he places a plastic bag into a red can and hides in among debris in a yard as two other officers watch.
The Baltimore Police Department responded to the video by releasing additional footage related to the incident during a news conference on Wednesday.
“This is a serious allegation of police misconduct,” Police Commissioner Kevin Davis told reporters. “There’s nothing that deteriorates the trust of any community more than thinking for one second that uniformed police officers ... would plant evidence of crimes on citizens.”
The police department has suspended Pinheiro and has placed the two others who observed him, identified in the Sun as Officers Hovhannes Simonyan and Jamal Brunson, on “non-public contact” administrative duty while the Office of Professional Responsibility Ethics Section investigates the incident, according to Davis.
The subsequent videos released by police Wednesday show the incidents that led up to Pinheiro’s viral body-cam footage, Davis said Wednesday. In the first two videos, which show the same incident from two different body cameras, officers pull over a suspect in a car and obtain from the individual two gel capsules of heroin. The third video shows officers arresting the suspected drug seller at a store, where he was found to be in possession of marijuana and a heroine capsule.
The fourth video shows police officers conducting an extensive search of the same yard that appeared in the body-cam footage released by the public defender’s office. During that search, the officers found a plastic bag filled with 25 gel capsules of heroin that was tied shut, Deputy Police Commissioner Jason Johnson explained Wednesday.
According to Johnson and Davis, there is a four-to-five-minute gap between the end of the fourth video (which shows the extended search of the yard) and the body-camera footage that appears to show Pinheiro “hiding” and then “finding” the plastic bag of capsules.
The state attorney’s office in Baltimore released a statement Wednesday evening, obtained by The Baltimore Sun, saying the office immediately took steps to dismiss the suspect’s case and began identifying “active cases involving these officers.”
The public defender’s office pointed out in Wednesday’s statement that Pinheiro’s body camera appeared to be turned on after he placed the bag of drugs in the yard and walked away.
“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,” Debbie Katz Levi, head of the public defender’s special litigation section, said in a statement.
Davis said the Baltimore police released the additional video because the body-cam video released by the public defender’s office “doesn’t paint as clear of a picture that we would like to offer to the community right now.”
“Unfortunately, none of us can just rely on observational video to draw conclusions in an investigation,” Davis said.
The video below was released Wednesday by the Baltimore Police Department. It masks the identity of the suspect.
Davis speculated during Wednesday’s news conference that the footage showing Pinheiro apparently hiding the drugs could have been the officers’ attempt to re-create the initial moment of discovery after it happened off-camera, though he added that it is still inappropriate.
“It’s certainly a possibility that we’re looking into to see if the officers in fact replaced drugs that they had already discovered in order to document their discovery with their body-worn cameras on,” Davis told reporters. “That’s certainly a consideration.”
The public defender’s office in Baltimore City criticized state prosecutors for allowing Pinheiro to testify as a witness in another case days after they were alerted of the body-camera video. According to the public defender’s statement, Pinheiro is currently a witness in approximately 53 active cases.
Levi told The New York Times that state prosecutors called on Pinheiro to testify in a case Monday without telling attorneys of the video that prompted his suspension.
“They essentially did nothing and were willing to subject somebody else to imprisonment, without disclosing at all,” Levi told the Times.
David Rocah of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland told The Baltimore Sun that videos would still be “potentially criminal” and should be in violation of police rules even if the officers were re-enacting the moment that officers first discovered the drugs.
Rocah added that the public as “zero reason” to trust any video or statement from the officers seen in the videos in question.
“So even if it is indeed true that they simply staged a re-creation of finding the drugs, these officers have not only destroyed their own credibility, they have single-handedly destroyed the credibility of every piece of video where BPD officers find contraband without a clear lead-in that negates the possibility of it being staged,” Rocah told the Sun. “That’s quite a day’s work.”
Watch Deputy Police Commissioner Jason Johnson narrate the additional videos provided by Baltimore police at 8:00 in the video of Wednesday’s news conference below.