Policing police on city streets

Residents, fearing overly aggressive tactics, videotape officers' actions

November 02, 2006|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,sun reporter

Leaning against the wall of a vacant rowhouse on Mosher Street, Devonte Smith fiddled with a palm-size video camera. A few blocks away, men and boys offered drugs for sale. Calls for "Redline" and "Ray Charles" - names for competing heroin products - echoed in the streets.

But Smith wasn't focusing the camera on the dealers. He was looking for the enforcers.

Smith is part of a loosely formed group of men who decided over the summer to keep video cameras with them so that they could monitor what they call overly aggressive police behavior.

Day-to-day life in the West Baltimore neighborhood is caught on city police cameras set up on the block. But men on the street would prefer to make their own record.

"You take my picture, I'm going to take your picture," said Harold Beverly, 28, who owns the camera Smith was holding. Beverly's video camera captured one - possibly two - episodes of what the men on the corner call questionable police behavior.

The videographers' decision to point lenses at the police is causing a subtle shift in the murky power balance between the police and those who are policed. A group of people who might otherwise lack credibility suddenly might find that they have proof to back up claims of police harassment. For the Police Department, a few seconds of tape, shown out of context, can give them a black eye.

Freddie Curry, who hangs out in the neighborhood, said he participates with the taping because "just telling you about it [police behavior] is far-fetched, but seeing it on camera is different. That was our concept from the beginning, to stop those officers from doing what they are doing in the neighborhood."

One tape that Curry shot of an arrest was given to the media and has caused a public relations problem for the city police. A second tape of a raid, which has not been shown on local news, has sparked interest from police internal affairs, Beverly said. Police spokesman Matt Jablow would not confirm or deny details about police interest in a second tape.

Officially, the Police Department has no objection to the men carrying camcorders.

"I'm not concerned about videotaping," said police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm. "We do a full investigation of complaints. If our people aren't following our rules and procedures, we want to know."

But Hamm acknowledged that what the men are doing can have a negative consequence for police. "It could create a perception of a problem. ... It upsets our people when false claims are made," he said.

"Before you make judgment, be sure you get the complete picture," Hamm said. "Let us take a look. Let us get the facts. I believe that is how you handle those situations. That is how you handle the public."

The tape that made the news was shot by Freddie Curry, 34. It shows police as they arrested his uncle, Glenn Curry. Viewers see two officers talking with Glenn Curry, who is handcuffed. One reaches over to Curry - his nephew calls it a strike - then pushes him to the ground. The officer then picks up a suspected heroin gel cap that popped out of Glenn Curry's pocket and pulls him a short distance. Finally, the officer picks Glenn Curry up, straightens his shirt and puts his baseball cap back on his head.

As the scene unfolds on the screen, the videotapers sound excited: "All that force for what?" one man says. "I got his [expletive], I got his [expletive] man. I got the camera, I can show how they rammed him."

Glenn Curry's lawyer, Granville Templeton III, showed the tape to reporters. Frames were published on the cover of the Baltimore Examiner and replayed on the local evening news. CBS News asked for a copy, and it has been posted on the Internet site YouTube.

Glenn Curry was arrested and charged with possession of heroin, trespassing and resisting arrest. Prosecutors dropped the charges Monday, saying that the scene in the video contradicted the account that the arresting officer wrote in his statement of charges.

Prosecutors had the tape digitally enhanced to investigate any claims of police misconduct but did not pursue charges against the officer.

"We would not be able to prove any criminal wrongdoing," said Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office. Her office sent the case to the Police Department for administrative review.

The Police Department defended the officer.

"It did not appear to us that there is anything wrong with the arrest, but [police] internal affairs is investigating," Jablow said. The officer has not been suspended.

FBI agents have viewed the tape and are reviewing the incident, said spokeswoman Michelle Crnkovich.

Despite all of the attention, Templeton, Curry's lawyer, concedes that "it's not the Rodney King video."

The men who are videotaping are not squeaky clean. Beverly pleaded guilty to assault, battery and handgun charges in 1995 and a drug possession charge in 1999.

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