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Baltimore body camera controversy grows

Flickr user northcharleston. Photo was modified for this article.

Baltimore body camera controversy grows

In the last month, the Baltimore Police Department has been rocked by accusations that officers are staging or “reenacting” the discovery of drugs for the benefit of capturing, after the fact, the seizure of evidence on their body cameras. In response, Baltimore County State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby has decided to drop the charges in those cases — and possibly hundreds of others linked to the officers involved. Mosby’s decision has prompted a backlash from Police Commissioner Kevin Davis and police union officials, and this controversy is raising substantial issues about the integrity of Baltimore drug enforcement operations and the future of body cameras.

The City of Baltimore has spent millions of dollars in the last two years to outfit officers with body worn cameras. The initiative is part of a program to instill public confidence in law enforcement in the wake of the 2014 death of Freddie Gray. Unlike many cities, Baltimore has a clear set of policies about the use of these cameras: officers are required to turn their cameras on whenever they respond to calls for service or undertake investigatory or enforcement action.

But, as has been clear for some time, this is not happening. In the three cases currently under review, officers failed to have their cameras on as required. This discovery comes on the heels of numerous prior incidents, 62 of which have resulted in low level disciplinary action against officers for failure to follow policy. In the words of Commissioner Davis, “In 2016 we were dealing with some police officers who are [sic] reluctant to use it as our policy required them to use it…some of those arrests from 2016 are now making their way into courtrooms.”

Body camera programs have been adopted by thousands of police departments in the last three years in response to growing concerns about excessive use of force, racial profiling, and other forms of police misconduct, especially in communities of color. The use of cameras raises profound concerns about potential invasions of privacy, but many feel it is worth that invasion if it enhances police performance, reduces frivolous complaints against police, and improves public confidence in the police. Increasingly, however, it appears that the use of these new systems is not furthering these intended objectives.

Time and again, those who appear in body camera videos and feel they have been mistreated by law enforcement are unable to get access to the footage. Video footage has been suppressed by departments in high profile cases, often for years, and criminal defense lawyers often experience long delays in getting access to this crucial evidence — sometimes with the result being that their clients languish in jail for months longer than necessary. I and othershave called for taking control of footage away from police and prosecutors and turning it over to an independent body with clear rules for providing access to those affected by a given incident, without sacrificing anyone’s privacy.

The staging or re-creating of drug seizures by officers in Baltimore for the purposes of recording them on body cameras is a violation of evidentiary rules, body camera regulations, and possibly criminal law. The State’s Attorney was correct in dropping the charges in cases involving these officers. If nothing else, these incidents will make it close to impossible to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt of someone’s guilt when the body camera apparently was turned on after the fact — and when, in some instances, the “staging” was not disclosed in the officer’s probable cause statement. These troubling and unprecedented practices simply cannot promote community trust or confidence in the actions of law enforcement. As State’s Attorney Mosby noted in a statement she issued explaining her actions, these revelations “undermine public trust and create indefensible doubts in the minds of the general public, judges and jurors.”

Chief Davis and police union officials have defended their officers, claiming that the officers were only seeking to document the legitimate discovery of drugs, and that they were doing an important service for the people of Baltimore.

To be sure, there is no evidence that the continual arrest of people for low level drug charges is doing anything to make Baltimore safer or reduce the negative impacts of drugs. Former Baltimore police officer Peter Moskos, in his book Cop in the Hood, describes in infuriating detail the utter futility of this approach. No matter how many times he and his colleagues arrest people for drugs, it has had absolutely no impact on the use or availability of drugs. All anyone has to do is just walk over a few blocks or wait a few minutes for someone else to sell them.

Even more concerning, these are the exact kinds of drug cases that have led to substantial erosions of Fourth Amendment standards protecting us from unreasonable searches and seizures. In his book Unwarranted, law professor Barry Friedman describes case after case where the War on Drugs has led to police practices and judicial decisions that allow for ever greater invasions by police. There is a real risk that body cameras will become a part of this dynamic. Officers in Baltimore should not be allowed to misuse this new technology just because they’re “getting drugs off the streets.”

These revelations make clear that body cameras are not going to be a panacea of improving policing or restoring public trust in the police. Worse, when used as part of this post-hoc “reenactment” manner, they run the risk of deepening public distrust and suspicion. Mosby was correct in responding definitively and unambiguously in rejecting these practices. Policy makers and local police need to follow suit.

Alex S. Vitale is Professor of Sociology and Coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College and author of The End of Policing. The views and opinions expressed in this article are Prof. Vitale’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Fair Punishment Project.
Thanks to Josie Duffy Rice.

Voters opt against candidate with history of misconduct in Ontario County D.A. race

Voters opt against candidate with history of misconduct in Ontario County D.A. race

At the ballot box in Ontario County, New York this week, Republican voters chose candidate Jim Ritts as the primary candidate for district attorney. Ritts won with 55 percent of the vote, beating Kristina “Kitty” Karle, a former assistant prosecutor in neighboring Monroe county. Karle’s loss comes after an appellate court criticized her for prosecutorial misconduct in June.

Ritts, an 18-year veteran of Ontario’s D.A. office, highlighted the fact that he has “never been admonished for misconduct” during his campaign, calling Karle’s record “a big problem” in a Q&A with the Finger Lake Times. Misconduct repeatedly emerged as a central theme during Ritts and Karle’s race.

Karle came under fire after the Fourth Department Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court reversed multiple verdicts in cases prosecuted by the Monroe County D.A.’s office. Most of the cases in question involved the conviction of a former pastor who allegedly repeatedly sexually abused a young boy. (In spite of the misconduct, the court did not ultimately reverse the pastor’s conviction.) Karle later confirmed she was the prosecuting attorney on these cases, the Democrat and Chronicle reported.

According to the court, Karle’s misconduct included inappropriately attacked the character of the defense attorney, presented herself as an “unsworn expert,” misstated evidence presented by a defense witness, and wrongly suggested that an adolescent witness decided against testifying because of “guilt” about the pastor’s actions.

In spite of the appellate judge’s findings, Karle defended her handling of the sexual abuse case, telling the Democrat that although she heard the court, she didn’t “have to agree with it,” and arguing that “if the worst thing people can say about me is that I fight too hard for kids, so be it.”

In an early September debate, she seemed to allude again to her passionate approach to cases involving children when she told the audience that she would “fight for your families and for your children as if they were my own.”

That defense of her misconduct was evidently not enough to sway Ontario voters, whose pick of Ritts seems to signal a preference for a candidate without a record of transgression.

“She claims she argued passionately for victims,” Ritts said of Karle during his campaign, “But breaking the rules and risking the conviction of dangerous predators is unacceptable.”

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Another wrongful conviction — and a chance for Worthy to step up

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy
Wayne County

Another wrongful conviction — and a chance for Worthy to step up

Jamal Segars and his friend Brian Minner were shot near the Detroit airport in 2004. Thelonious “Shaun” Searcy became the prime suspect, and investigator theorized he had meant to kill someone else and shot Segars and Minner by mistake. Officers from the scene were unable to identify Searcy, but four other random eye-witnesses did. Searcy presented eight eyewitnesses who placed him at a family barbeque.

Despite what would appear to be solid alibi evidence, then-25-year-old Searcy was convicted to first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole.

Since then, Searcy has filed any number of appeals to get his case back before a court, but they have all been denied, many by the same judge who oversaw his conviction in the first place. Witnesses have confessed to being threatened, coerced and bribed.

Then, a break came.

Vincent Smothers is a professional hit man who is serving multiple 50–100 year sentences for several murders. He took the rap for four shootings for which the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office had wrongfully convicted 14-year-old Davontae Sanford. Sanford was exonerated last year. At the time of Sanford’s arrest in 2007, Smothers had already admitted guilt and tried to confess to the police. But, during Sanford’s appeals, Worthy’s office never gave much credence to Smothers’s confession, instead attributing her decision to drop the case to law enforcement perjury.

In 2015, Smothers wrote a note to Searcy. “I have discovered your name while searching through cases in the law library about prosecutorial misconduct,” he said, explaining that he had committed the 2004 double shooting. In 2016, Searcy filed a motion requesting a new trial based on this evidence. A taped interview and signed affidavit contain Vincent Smothers’s confession with details.

There are other reasons to be suspicious of Searcy’s case beyond Smothers’s confession. Two key players in Sanford’s botched conviction — Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Patrick Muscat and Detroit Police Homicide Investigator Dale Collins– were also part of Searcy’s trial. In his filings, Searcy alleges multiple counts of misconduct by law enforcement as well as poor representation by his defense attorney, Robert Mitchell, who died in December of 2016. There are also allegations that one of the lead witnesses against Searcy had a motive to lie that was concealed by prosecutors.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy has agreed to an evidentiary hearingin Searcy’s case although no date has been set. Her response motion mostly recounts the trial testimony of the witnesses.

I’ve written previously about another wrongful conviction of another man in Detroit, opposed by Kym Worthy. The corrupt practices of Detroit law enforcement over the decades led to excessively harsh sentences and bad cases. How many more innocent people are in Michigan’s prisons waiting for their day?

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