You’ve no doubt seen the not-one-but-two separate body cam videos where officers with the Baltimore Police Department are seemingly planting drug evidence. With these, and so many other videos of bad cops run amok, what can been done to better police the police?
On my daily cannabis news podcast, The Marijuana Agenda, I sat down with Major Neill Franklin, a former cop with 34 years of experience as a narcotics officer for the Maryland State Police and as the commander for the Education and Training Division of the Baltimore Police Department. He’s also the executive director of Law Enforcement Action Partnership[*], a non-profit organization of former police, prosecutors, judges and others dedicated to advancing reforms in criminal justice and drug policy that improve public safety.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Marijuana Agenda: In Baltimore, the police department was caught not once, but twice, on body cams in what appears to be incidents of, at best, recreating evidence-collecting of drugs and, at worst, planting evidence of drugs. What can you tell us about this scandal?
Major Neill Franklin: Well, first let me say that nowhere in our training, or in our policies—and I was the head of training from 2000 to 2004 in the Baltimore Police Department—there is nothing in their 700-plus objectives that instructs anyone on recreating the collection of evidence.
It just doesn’t exist, and it doesn’t make sense, which, therefore, leaves these two episodes very, very questionable. I think [the videos] speak for themselves. You just don’t… this isn’t the movies. These police officers know what the importance of evidence collection is.
So, it makes no sense, we don’t teach it, we wouldn’t dare teach it or instruct it, or build any type of program around the recreation of any evidence.
TMA: After we saw what happened in numerous cell phone videos of police behaving badly, there were a lot of call for these police body cams. But in these situations, we’ve got cops who are turning the cams off, turning them on, using them to fabricate evidence. What can we do with body cams, or are body cams not the solution?
NF: Along with the good that comes with body cams, comes the bad. Despite these two occurrences, and I’m sure there are probably more throughout the country, the benefit of having body cams greatly outweighs this type of activity by our police officers.
So, what do we have to do? We go back to the drawing board, we look at policy, we look at oversight. As technology improves, I think we’ll be able to solve some of that. As battery life improves, I think we’ll be able to have these things running [all the time] in the background.
I hope that no one is thinking, “Oh, well, let’s get rid of the body cams, because here we have problems.”
We know that when people are wearing body cams, we know that when people are using their cell phones to record, people on both sides behave better. The cops behave better and the citizens behave better.
TMA: You mentioned the technological limitations, such as the limited battery life, but are there also political limitations, say, police unions that don’t want every minute of the day filmed?
NF: Well, there is the political perspective and also dealing with the privacy issues as well. Many times, police officers have to go into the homes of people. You need to be able to deactivate the recording if you’re in the home of a citizen—it could be a sexual assault case, it could involve sensitive family matters, so there should be some type of process for that, but all you need is accountability. All you need is the proper policy and accountability to deal with those situations.
TMA: The Washington Post recently came out with an investigative report showing how cops are fired and re-hired. I think some people are worried that there’s no way of tracking bad cops.
NF: In many of our states (not most), there’s things such as the Police Officers’ Bill of Rights. These are rights that have been afforded to law enforcement officers throughout the years because of improprieties at the managerial level. If you don’t like a particular person as a sergeant, a lieutenant or a commander, you get the wheels moving to get rid of them. A lot of that was also along the lines of race, where African-American police officers were being booted out of police departments with no protections.
And we also have union contracts at many of our police departments that even go well beyond the Police Officers’ Bill of Rights and the protections afforded there. So, when you had these very strong negotiated contracts, it’s not only very difficult to get rid of the police officers, but there are also many windows for bringing them back if you don’t cross your T’s and dot your I’s in the investigations.
TMA: The other part of this, on a national level, is when police officers are terminated and they pop up somewhere else either within state or out-of-state. Do you have a solution for this?
NF: Right now, the police officers are insured by the cities and towns and states that they work for. Blanket policies cover their behavior, their negligence, and when the civil suits are filed, it’s usually the department and the jurisdiction that has to foot the bill—the taxpayers.
How about we have insurance, each police officer carries their own malpractice insurance, just like doctors do. So, now, the police departments can pay the basic premiums. But any rise in premiums because of—you know, you have an accident with your car, what happens to your policy, the premiums go up, right?—so rises will be borne by the police officer.
If you have too many lawsuits, or maybe one is even enough if it is severe enough, then that insurance company drops you.
Now, if you can’t get insurance as a police officer anywhere in the country because of your record, because of your brutality and your excessive force complaints, then you know what? You can’t be a police officer because you can’t get insured.
TMA: Do you have any other ideas for rooting out the bad cops?
NF: We just need to start thinking out of the box. We need to have databases that track police officers who have been terminated from police departments, so that when you do fill out an application for another police department across the country, it pops up, there’s the red flag.
It’s all it takes, it doesn’t take a lot. We just haven’t gotten to that point yet. We have the Fraternal Order of Police and other police unions across the country that make it difficult for us to move in this type of direction.
TMA: Where can people go to find out more about these issues?
NF: Our website is LawEnforcementAction.org. And let me just make something perfectly clear: we are pro-police, we are pro-citizens, we are pro-the-profession, we want things to be professional. We want strong relationships between police and community. We want the community and the police to be one, not something you have to build a bridge between. It should be one. That’s the reason we do this work.
We want the police to be held accountable. We are cops! And we want our profession to be just that—extremely professional and one with the community.
[*] That’s LEAP’s new name. They were formerly “Law Enforcement Against Prohibition,” but changed their name recently as they’ve expanded their mission beyond just ending the War on Drugs.