By Stephen Janis and Taya Graham
Special to the AFRO
A recent video of what appears to be yet another disturbing arrest has again brought national attention to the tactics of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD).
A 45- second clip that depicts a December 2nd encounter between a plain clothes cop and a city resident has stirred controversy in a community already at odds with the department.
In the video, officer Leon Riley is seen sprawled atop Baltimore resident David Dixon apparently executing an arrest. Dixon says he can’t breathe as Riley continues to wrap his arm around Dixon’s neck, trying to place him in handcuffs.
“You’re choking me sir,” Dixon says, to which Riley simply replies, “Put your hands behind you back.”
When a person off-camera accuses the officer of ‘choking him (Dixon) out,’ Riley places his hand on his gun.
The video spread quickly across social media, forcing the department to respond. Prosecutors dropped charges of drug possession against Dixon shortly after the video emerged, hinting that an investigation into the officer’s actions was now underway.
“Based on the review of the unreleased body worn camera, dismissal of the charges was warranted and further investigation has been initiated,” Zy Richardson, spokesperson for the Baltimore City State’s Attorney told the AFRO.
But, the emergence of another image depicting city police using controversial tactics has once again sparked debate. It’s a conversation that comes as the race for mayor heats up while candidates jockey for position on one of the most pressing issues facing their respective campaigns: reducing crime without further alienating the community as this most recent video seems to have done.
“Training, training, training and oversight,” former police spokesman T.J. Smith, who declared his candidacy last month said about the video. “Officers need to know how to de-escalate.”
“That‘s a serious situation when you get to that point,” he added.
Currently the department deploys what’s known as “District Action Teams” in each of the city’s nine police districts. The squads are specialized units that target violent crime, but are supposed to wear uniforms, unlike the notorious Gun Trace Task Force.
The GTTF was a group of eight officers who plead guilty or were convicted of robbing residents, dealing drugs, and stealing overtime. The unit roamed the city in casual attire similar to the officers depicted in the Dec. 2 video, prompting then commissioner Kevin Davis pledge an end to the practice.
Police spokesman Matt Jablow would not respond to questions from the AFRO about where officer Riley was detailed.
But, current mayor and 2020 candidate Bernard “Jack” Young says the plainclothes units are an essential part of the city’s crime fighting strategy.
“They are used across the country,” said Young. “They are an important way to fight crime.”
Young said that while he had not seen the entire video, he still supported the concept of tactical units as a useful tool.
“We need them,” he said.
But, Smith was not so sure. It was during his tenure the department intentionally pivoted from plainclothes units in the wake of the GTTF scandal.
“Back then with everything that occurred under GTTF, there was a reset and reboot that needed to be done,” Smith said. “At that time the commissioner believed special units should be in uniform,” he said.
One candidate who had not yet entered the race but still looms over the field believes the controversy points to a need for more patrol officers.
“We definitely need more visibility with police officers walking, not in the cars not in the paddy wagons, but actually walking around,” said former mayor and possible candidate Sheila Dixon.
“That presence from my perspective makes people feel safer.”
Dixon would not say if she had made a decision on her future candidacy, or when she would announce her intentions.
Among all the candidates, former Assistant Attorney General Thiru Vignaragah has tied himself closest to the crime fight. On his campaign website he promised to “end the bloodshed,” and cut the murder rate in half during his first term. For him, the video pointed again to the problem of inadequate training.
“The video is alarming; a full investigation is obviously warranted,” Vignaragah said. “It also highlights the importance of proper training of officers, the proper use of chokeholds and de-escalation strategies,” he added.
“My hope is what we saw is preventable.”