Police body camera footage is at the center of a perjury investigation in Vermont’s largest city.
The police officer under suspicion resigned his job this week, the Burlington Police Department announced.
In the recording, taken in October, Officer Christopher Lopez is executing a traffic stop.
It is apparent from statements recorded on the camera that Lopez had significant suspicions that the driver might have drugs in his vehicle.
Lopez apparently thought a body camera was off, but it did capture this conversation with a back-up officer:
Officer Christopher Lopez: You’re off, right?
Back-up officer: Yeah.
Lopez: I’m just trying to get creative about how I’m going to get in this car.
Back-up officer: Do you smell anything?
Lopez: No. I mean, I can if I need to, but I don’t like going that way if I can’t back it up.
Despite saying on the tape that he did not smell anything, Lopez wrote in a formal report forwarded to prosecutors that he did detect “the odor of fresh marijuana.”
“We have an officer who was out there doing what he believed was proactive police work, and we have concerns about the integrity of that police work,” Chief Brandon del Pozo of the Burlington Police Department said this week in discussing Lopez’s resignation.
Prosecutors brought drug charges against the driver, believing evidence against him was strong, then abruptly dropped the allegations when the defense pointed to the discrepancy between the recording and the written report.
“We had enough without the smell of marijuana,” Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George said of other evidence against the driver involved in the traffic stop, who was also suspected of possessing cocaine.
Lopez resigned under intense scrutiny. Outside agencies are now looking into whether his actions were criminal, but no charges have been filed.
“I hope that this sends a message to law enforcement: that when you do things right, and honestly, and legitimately, I will have your back,” George said. “And when you don’t, I will make it known that you did whatever you did, and I won’t tolerate it.”
George said Friday she dismissed 16 pending criminal dockets because she did not consider Lopez’s testimony credible enough to get convictions. That number rose from Thursday, when George anticipated dismissing 14 dockets.
The dismissed charges included felonies and misdemeanors, involving possession of heroin, marijuana, and cocaine. Other dismissed charges involved lesser charges, such as leaving the scene of an accident.
The state’s attorney said the overwhelming majority of police personnel in Chittenden County are careful and honest in doing their jobs. She praised most all police in her county for their service to their communities under often very difficult circumstances.
Phil Cykon, the director of the Champlain College criminal justice program, said body cameras present complicated questions for departments and the communities, but that the devices can be critical to transparency.
“These situations test the system,” Cykon said of examples of alleged wrongdoing being caught on tape. “Any way we can keep that trust—keep the faith in the system alive—the better off we’re all going to be.”
Necn attempted to get the former officer’s side of the story, but his attorney declined our request for comment.
Attorney Lisa Shelkrot said in an email Friday that she doesn’t believe it’s appropriate for anyone to comment when there’s a pending investigation.