Bad cops and videotape [Editorial]

Our view: City police will never win the trust of community residents as long as they appear to ignore the wrongdoers among their own ranks

September 17, 2014

The suspension of a Baltimore City police officer this week after a videotape surfaced showing him violently assaulting a citizen in June appears to confirm what has become a depressing pattern: A brutal attack that should have merited a swift response from authorities was instead met with a passive indifference — inaction that could easily be interpreted as an attempt to cover up the brutality of the crime.

Sound familiar? It should, given the furor over the publication recently of a video showing the Ravens' Ray Rice knocking his then-fiancée, Janay Palmer, unconscious in at Atlantic City casino hotel elevator in February. Team officials and the NFL claimed at the time that they had never seen the tape before giving Mr. Rice what amounted to a slap on the wrist for his behavior. At a news conference Tuesday, Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts pleaded a similar ignorance of Officer Vincent E. Cosom's apparently brutal beating of Kollin Truss this summer — an attack that was recorded by his department's own surveillance cameras — in explaining why Mr. Cosom had not already been suspended.

Mr. Batts and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake both denounced the officer's actions as inimical to the department's effort to win the trust of community residents. Mr. Batts went so far as to insist that had he known of the incident he would have removed Officer Cosom from field duty immediately. Ms. Rawlings-Blake expressed shock over the attack, calling the officer's conduct "shameful and not worthy of the sworn obligation every officer takes to serve and protect city residents."

So why then did it take so long for the department to act? Mr. Batts said he hasn't been on the job long enough to get rid of all the "bad apples" in his organization. But if ridding the department of bad apples is the boss' priority, it seems not to be translating into action down in the ranks. It's been three months since the incident occurred, and until this week the officer remained on duty — and likely would still be if Mr. Truss' attorney, who is representing his client in a $5 million lawsuit against the city for excessive use of force, false arrest and other misconduct, hadn't turned over portions of the video to the news media. We need to know who in the police department saw the video, when they saw it and why they did nothing in response.

The video exposes what appear to be glaring discrepancies between the official report of the incident filed by Mr. Cosom and what the camera recorded. For example, Mr. Cosom claimed that Mr. Truss ignored his order to leave the area of a liquor store near North and Greenmount avenues, then assaulted a woman accompanying him and turned to confront police in a "fighting stance." But the woman with Mr. Truss, described in court papers as his girlfriend, claimed she was never assaulted and the video appears to show her and Mr. Truss walking away from the officer when Mr. Cosom darted after them and began raining blows on the victim in a seemingly unprovoked attack. Mr. Truss was then placed under arrest for assault and other offenses.

City prosecutors later dropped all charges against Mr. Truss after viewing the tape and notified the police integrity unit of the state's attorney's office of possible police misconduct. But astonishingly, Mr. Batts says he and his top commanders never got word of the incident. Someone clearly dropped the ball in this case, which never even made it onto the list of excessive force complaints the department is investigating. Even now Mr. Cosom is still collecting his officer's salary and has yet to be charged with a crime in connection with the incident.

Local activists against police brutality say sweeping such problems under the rug goes on all the time. What made this attack different, they say, was the presence of the camera, which changes everything. If we hadn't seen it with our own eyes we still might not believe it — no matter how many witnesses there were, and according to the tape, there were many, some brandishing their own cell phone cameras. The fact that the photographic evidence is convincing raises the question of how many other such incidents routinely slip under the radar because there's no visual record of them and they become a matter of the victim's word against that of the officer.

Mr. Batts needs to follow up quickly on his promise that there will be consequences for all those in the department who failed to properly handle this case. Mr. Cosom has already been suspended, but what about the other two officers shown in the video, one of whom appears to restrain the victim while he was being punched while the other seems to be watching but makes no attempt to stop the attack? Did they report the conduct to anyone? Were they complicit in the evidently false report Mr. Cosom filed? Deputy Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez said yesterday that "anyone that either acted with malice or anyone that after seeing misconduct or malice failed to take action will also be held accountable." We certainly hope so. Baltimore police will never win the trust of residents as long as they seem to ignore the wrongdoers among their ranks.


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