ACLU: Baltimore Body Cam Regs Another Setback for Police Accountability
Former investigator also says decision to allow officers to review body camera footage before giving statements could hinder internal probes
STEPHEN JANIS, TRNN: For a police department still under intense scrutiny by both the community and the Justice Department, it was what some are calling a bold move, with the rollout of a body camera pilot program last week in three police districts across the city, news that officers would be given the right to review footage of an incident before giving statements to investigators if it comes under scrutiny. It was an explicit departure from the findings of the body camera workgroup tasked by the mayor with developing the city’s body camera program, which also caught the attention of the Maryland ACLU. According to David Rocah, the organization’s legal director, the right to review footage is not just another legal exemption for a profession which already operates under the protection of a special Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, but also a capitulation to the power of the city’s police union, which asked for the change which carves out yet another special rule for law enforcement officers.
DAVID ROCAH: This issue was discussed at great length in that working group. And everyone in the working group, with the exception of the FOP, said that the rules should be that officers do not get to view their own bodycam footage prior to giving a statement for all the reasons that I just said. It makes no sense.
JANIS: And a dangerous precedent of carving out legal loopholes for cops.
ROCAH: The fact that the police commissioner, who the mayor appointed in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death and the unrest that followed is now saying, I’m going to adopt the FOP’s position rather than the position that the Baltimore Police Department’s own representatives took, and a position that makes it impossible to accurately judge the accuracy and truthfulness of an officer’s statement, tells you that he is more concerned about pandering to the FOP than about protecting the community and properly and meaningfully investigating officers. It’s a travesty.
JANIS: Which is why the ACLU of Maryland sent this letter to the city objecting to the exemption, and calling for stricter guidelines for how officers can use the cameras. But more specifically, that the special privilege be withdrawn.
ROCAH: What other message can the public take from a rule that says we’re going to let the person who’s under investigation review our evidence before they give a statement? How can anyone perceive that as anything other than not really being serious about doing a meaningful investigation?
JANIS: We asked the police department for a comment on the request, but they did not get back to us. We also contacted a police union representative, who also declined to comment. However, the Real News obtained a copy of this letter sent by Police Commissioner Kevin Davis to address the ACLU’s concerns. In it Davis said he would not alter the policy, that only officers facing internal charges, not criminal, would be allowed to view footage. It’s a reply that doesn’t sit well with at least one experienced investigator of police misconduct.
Former homicide detective Stephen Tabeling was one of the first to investigate police use of force in Baltimore in the 1960s. His concern, that allowing officers to access footage regardless of circumstance, could compromise the investigative process. A process of investigating itself, which he says the Baltimore Police Department already does not do well.
JANIS: What did you think about the investigation as it was portrayed in the Sun, in the story?
STEPHEN TABELING: Well it’s, as what I read, the way that investigation was conducted I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.
JANIS: As proof he points to one of its most notorious probes: the investigation into the death of Freddie Gray, recounted in excruciating detail in the Baltimore Sun. A process that seemed to jeopardize the case and the chance of winning convictions in court, says Tabeling.
TABELING: I’ll start with number one. I’ve been around 60 years and I’ve never known a police commissioner to run an investigation. I’ve never known command personnel. And I’ve had personal experiences with that. I’ve had a lot of serious cases, and I’d investigate them, and as the case would progress somebody might come in my office and talk to me. Or when it was all over the police commissioner would call me. But I’ve never seen a police commissioner and command staff go out on the street, and especially what I read in the paper, the commissioner was running this investigation. And any time that you have more than two or three people on an investigation you got a problem. Too many–when you get too many hands in it.
Just think about this. You have to put a case together, right? You have to establish probable cause for everything that you do. You connect these things together by getting your best witnesses, getting information from that witness to the next to the next. And finally if you’re going to get to your suspects you got a, you got a case in front of you. Now I know what the sit down with the suspect and talk about. And I always, always had a method that when, when I started interrogation I didn’t play that television stuff and say, where were you last week? What I wanted to do was sit that suspect down after he’s advised of his rights, and I’m going to tell him something. What do you do when you’ve got four or five different people taking statements? Who’s the main person?
And the thing that got me is, I see in that article were investigators were so stressed out that one of them had to take leave. I can’t, you know, that’s just hard for me to believe, from where I come from.
JANIS: Which is why he believes the department needs to overhaul its process for investigating cops, and use common sense from the past to inform the new technology of the present.
Reporting from Baltimore, this is Stephen Janis and Taya Graham for the Real News Network.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.