It’s a turbulent time for our country. Over the past decade, relations between the public and the police have been strained to say the least. In an effort to re-instill the public’s faith in the police, many departments across the country have been requiring their officers wear body cameras at all times.
This is a double-edged sword if ever there was one and it seems to be acting as a firsthand witness to police misconduct rather than one to ensure a fair account of solid procedure. This story of a Baltimore Officer and his body cam, is a thought provoking tale that displays some of the problems that exist because of these devices…
Featured Photo Credit: www.wbcnews.xyz
There’s no doubt that Rick Pinheiro Jr. was a brave man. In his youth, from the time he was a teenager in fact, Rick was known for doing daring things. His tender teen years were marked by a penchant for bull riding and he competed as a bull rider for several years in high school.
Joining the Force
After he graduated, Rick worked construction at Spedden Marine in Cambridge, but the job, challenging as it was, wasn’t what he really wanted to do. Rick wanted to make a difference and more importantly, he wanted a job where he’d see some action. With that in mind, he attended the academy and joined the Baltimore police force…
Everything was going well for Rick. It seemed that in no time at all, he became an invaluable part of the Baltimore Police Force. It was January 24, 2017, a routine day for Rick and his two fellow officers. They were in the Southwest District of Baltimore at around 9:25 a.m., when an incident occurred that would change all their lives.
Rick and the other officers were doing surveillance on what they believed to be frequent drug transactions in the area. The area was known for its high degree of drug activity and the officers were just following up on some leads, or so they believed. That’s when they first caught sight of their suspect…
One of the officers saw an individual acting suspiciously in the area. He was wearing a blue hooded sweatshirt and jeans and was, in the officers’ opinions, “engaging in behavior they recognized as “likely to participate in drug transactions,” They saw the man speaking with others, then stepping into an alley for a minute before both would emerge and the other would leave.
The other officers conducted a traffic stop on one of the people who they had seen emerging from the alley. When confronted, he gave the arresting officers two gelcaps of what they suspected to be heroin. Meanwhile, the suspect in the sweatshirt went into a corner store, where additional officers stopped him. The buyer then gave up information as to where he believed the drugs were being kept and the man who sold them to him…
The suspected drug dealer was arrested and drugs were indeed found in his possession. Afterwards, officers went to the area where they were told he might be keeping his stash and searched the yard. The search yielded a clear plastic bag containing 25 gelcaps of heroin. Their body cams caught the whole thing on camera, but they also caught something else as well.
Rick and the other officers continued to search the yard but couldn’t find anything else. Then, after one final swoop, Rick called his fellow officer over. He’d found another bag of heroin in the suspect’s yard. The drug-busting cops were ecstatic, but what they didn’t know was that the drugs had been planted there, not by the suspect but by Officer Pinheiro…
90 Seconds, Changes a Life
Because of the surge of mistrust that’s been levied against police officers in recent years, many of Baltimore’s finest have to wear body cams at all times to ensure that they follow the proper procedure. Rick’s cam was on the whole time and the 90-second video that it captured would prove to be his undoing and breed more distrust in the Baltimore police.
The camera only captures him planting the drugs, but without sound. It’s only when officer Pinheiro gets to the sidewalk, that he fully activates the camera, turning on the audio recorder as well. “I’m going to go check here, hold on,” says Rick, before heading back down the alley where the officers had been standing…
Officer Rick then walks over to the trash pile where he’d hid the drugs not 30 seconds earlier and picks up the can. Inside was the plastic bag of pills he put there. He and the other officers rejoice at the news, unaware that their camera had been recording everything: not just the moment when he switched the sound back on.
Officer Richard “Rick” Pinheiro, had indeed been on camera “finding” drugs among some trash in the yard. But unfortunately for him, and the other two cops who were with him when he did the deed, he was also on camera hiding the drugs there in first place. When his supervisors saw the tapes, they brought down the hammer…
“This is a serious allegation of police misconduct,” announced Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis at an ensuing press conference some days after the incident occurred. “There is nothing that deteriorates the trust of any community more than thinking for one second that police officers would just plant evidence of crimes on citizens.”
Suspension and Disbelief
The other two officers have been placed on “nonpublic contact” and administrative duty: basically desk jobs, for the time being. In the meantime, Officer Pinheiro has been suspended without pay and is being investigated further. His suspension and the gravity of his misconduct isn’t the only problem though…
A Big Problem
The biggest issue now is that Officer Pinheiro happens to be a witness in about 53 active cases, one of which he had been called to testify in the week of the evidence planting. The released video led to that case’s dismissal after an assistant public defender forwarded it to the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office, and that may only be the tip of the iceberg for all 53 of those cases.
Internal affairs is now looking into all of Officer Pinheiro’s other cases, to be sure that no other misconduct has occurred. Debbie Katz Levi, head of the Baltimore Public Defender’s Special Litigation Section, said that “Baltimore police have long had a problem with officer misconduct but that the city does not generally hold individuals accountable.” Rick Pinheiro, however, may prove to be a special case…
“We have long supported the use of police body cameras to help identify police misconduct,” she goes on to say. “But such footage is meaningless if prosecutors continue to rely on these officers, especially if they do so without disclosing their bad acts,” And Ms. Levi isn’t wrong. For the police to maintain a peacekeeping and trustworthy force for good, things have to change.
In an effort to beat out the media, the Baltimore police played four other videos to provide additional context. In the first two videos, officers procure two gel capsules of heroin. Then, in the third, the officers approach the alleged seller and arrest him after finding marijuana and gelcaps on him. Finally, the fourth video shows officers undertaking an extensive search of a yard. Unfortunately, even all that proof can’t undo what Rick Pinheiro did…
Effect on the Community
In the meantime, the Baltimore Police Department swears that it will get to the bottom of the matter. The perception of the public is their main concern of course, but so is making sure all of the arrests which Pinheiro was a part of remain good, clean arrests. It’s a difficult situation, but one which highlights the necessity of oversight on the part of the police.
In the end, the question of police officers wearing body cameras is still up for debate. A 296-page report by the U.S. Justice Department, concluded that there is not enough research to understand the impact of body cameras. Yet, ultimately, the purpose of these cameras should be to help officers protect and serve their communities better, not just “catch em’ in the act”.