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Monday, January 2, 2012

Police Chief Defends Handling of Evidence in Video

Police chief defends handling of evidence in video
The Utica Observer-Dispatch by Rocco LaDuca - January 2, 2012
NAACP still sees proof of UPD wrongdoing during traffic stop

UTICA, NY - Local police officials say its acceptable practice for officers to place drug evidence in their pockets while searching a suspect. A local NAACP official, however, questions whether such methods create the potential for tampering. Just 24 hours after a video titled “Utica, NY police planting evidence” went viral across the Internet, Utica police Chief Mark Williams was forced to explain the ambiguous actions of one officer caught on tape during traffic stop in February 2011. As the public has reacted with outcries of corruption since Monday, Williams released the entire 30-minute recording to show all of the circumstances surrounding an incident in which he believes no wrong occurred. The earlier online video snippet – lasting 1 minute and 40 seconds – shows Utica police Officer Paul Paladino pull a full, clear plastic baggie from his pocket before leaning into a vehicle stopped at the intersection of Clinton and Kemble streets. After about 25 seconds, Paladino walks away from the vehicle with similar-looking baggies in his hand, according to footage from the dash-cam of Paladino’s police vehicle.

NAACP official concerned

Venice Ervin, chairman of the Legal Redress Committee of the NAACP in Utica and Oneida County, said he is convinced this footage caught Paladino in the act of planting evidence. “We do feel there is concern that some wrongdoing has been done because police officers don’t place evidence in their back pocket and then take it out and climb into a suspect’s car, and then exit with the drugs unrolled,” Ervin said Tuesday. Williams and Oneida County District Attorney Scott McNamara, however, say officers sometimes have no choice but to put recovered evidence in their pockets while searching a suspect on the street. “You can put the evidence on your person to maintain custody of it until you have a chance to store it,” Williams said. “Where else are you going to put it, on the ground? In the course of searching someone, sometimes the only thing you’ve got is your pockets until a short time later you can put it all together.” And that’s what Paladino did in this case, Williams said. But, Williams added, the briefer portion of video that was first posted Monday on YouTube fails to show everything that happened at the stop. Minutes before Paladino enters the rear passenger side of the vehicle, the footage shows him removing similar looking baggies from the pockets of handcuffed suspect Grady Jones, 51. The search of Jones’ passenger, Ameya Hunt, 38, was not recorded on film. But Williams said seven baggies of marijuana were recovered from her purse, in addition to 10 baggies of marijuana from Jones. The scent of burnt marijuana also could be smelled coming from the vehicle, and a blunt cigarette was found, police said. The shorter controversial segment of the footage, Williams said, actually shows Paladino later removing those same baggies of marijuana from his pocket so that he could separate them in the backseat of Jones’ vehicle. Under the driver and passenger seats, Paladino also recovered other plastic baggies that contained a small residue of cocaine, resulting in misdemeanor charges, Williams said.

Planting evidence?

The cocaine allegations prompted the defendants to question whether evidence had been planted, Williams said. Those misdemeanor charges were dropped in Utica City Court when Jones pleaded guilty in June to misdemeanor marijuana possession and Hunt pleaded to a marijuana violation, police said. One of the suspects, however, forwarded a recording of the stop to the NAACP and the FBI, which prompted Utica police in October to conduct an internal investigation, officials said. After the limited portion was posted on YouTube Monday, it was only a matter of hours before the footage spread across the Internet through various websites. On one site,, more than 1,200 public comments were posted below the video in 11 hours. “I’m pretty sure it’s part of their training not to do the things they did in the video,” Ervin said of the police. “That makes it very suspect when you see something like that.” DA McNamara disagreed Tuesday, and he believes Paladino did nothing wrong. “The way I look at this is: It’s easy to second guess, and it’s even easier to say ‘woulda, shoulda, coulda,’” McNamara said. “However, in our community that has lost three police officers to gunshot wounds, I’m never going to second guess a police officer who feels the safest, most appropriate thing to do is to secure the evidence on his person, where he knows where it is.” If any questionable issues do arise later, they will then be dealt with in a courtroom, McNamara said. Williams said the department’s Office of Professional Standards has nearly completed its own internal investigation and has found that Paladino did not plant evidence. The FBI, Williams said, has asked to review Utica’s findings. Williams said this incident will lead department officials to discuss whether there is a better way to handle drug evidence “so it doesn’t look so bad to the eyes of the public.” But Williams also wanted to assure the public that any officer who does plant evidence would be fired. “I just hope people are open-minded and realize that it’s in my best interest, if I have a dirty road cop, to get rid of him, not defend him,” Williams said.

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