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Protesters occupy City Hall after Kevin Davis' appointment hearing

16 protesters arrested for trespassing at City Hall after Kevin Davis' appointment hearing.

Baltimore police arrested 16 protesters who occupied City Hall overnight, hours after a City Council committee approved the permanent appointment of interim Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis on Wednesday.

The people arrested range from ages 16 to 38; three were juveniles. They were all charged by police with trespassing.

Dozens of protesters remained on the balcony overlooking the hearing room after the meeting finished. About 30 were still there after midnight.

About 3:15 a.m. many of the remaining protesters left City Hall saying that dozens of officers had appeared in the hallway near the room where they were located with flex-cuffs. Officers warned that City Hall was closed and arrests would be made, protesters said.

Lawrence Grand Pre, one of the protesters who left, said those remaining were "young people being young people, and talking a lot about social justice." He said watching the youth protesters' "level of commitment to social justice is empowering."

At about 4:45 a.m. at least 12 protesters who remained inside had been arrested, and officers escorted them outside to police vans.

As she was being placed in back of the police van, one protester yelled "Ay yo commissioner, what's good?"

She also yelled to other protesters that if she died in police custody it was not suicide.

Many of the protesters were teenagers — some of them high school students. City schools are closed Thursday and Friday, scheduled professional development days for teachers.

Baltimore Police said that after "hours of communication and warnings, a small number of protesters inside of City Hall decided to leave the building." The remaining protesters were arrested and charged with trespassing, police said, adding there were no reported injuries to any protesters or officers.

Earlier Wednesday night the committee meeting drew a large crowd — with supporters praising Davis' approach to policing and others criticizing his brief tenure at the helm of the department.

Protesters at one point disrupted the hearing, chanting "No justice, no peace! If we don't get it, shut it down!" and "Stop the vote! Stop the vote!"

The council's appointments committee nonetheless approved his appointment, which will now go before the entire City Council next week.

During the committee hearing, Davis spoke to both audiences, telling council members and protesters that police departments across the country are taking on a new focus — changing their "warrior mentality" back into a "guardian mentality."

He repeatedly promised that a return to community policing, strengthened partnerships with federal law enforcement and an open dialogue with Baltimoreans from all walks of life — protesters and faith leaders, rank-and-file officers and family members of crime victims — would be the touchstones of his time as commissioner.

"The community will determine our success," he said. "There's no two ways about it."

During the hearing, council members questioned Davis about putting more officers on the streets and using new technology such as officer body cameras, both of which Davis said he supported.

Amid the disruption, the committee voted to approve Davis' confirmation. Council members William "Pete" Welch, Rochelle "Rikki" Specter and Eric T. Costello voted for approval. Councilman Nick Mosby voted against, and Councilman Carl Stokes abstained.

If the full City Council confirms Davis' appointment, his contract would then have to be approved by the Board of Estimates. That board is controlled by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, whose administration crafted the contract. She initially proposed Davis' confirmation.

The contract would pay Davis $200,000 a year, with $150,000 in severance if the city's next mayor fires him without cause. It would have him finish out the five years left of his predecessor Anthony W. Batt's term.

Council members had expressed concerns about Davis receiving a large severance package if Rawlings-Blake's successor wanted to appoint a new commissioner. Rawlings-Blake has said she will not run for re-election.

Mosby said in a statement after the hearing that the next mayor should be able to decide whether to bring in new leadership. If the new mayor picks another chief, he said, citizens "should not be saddled with $150,000 golden parachute." Mosby has said he is considering running for mayor.

The hearing Wednesday occurred amid a particularly difficult time for the Police Department: three months after Batts was fired by Rawlings-Blake; six months after the death of Freddie Gray sparked protests and rioting; and 10 months into a year of unprecedented city violence, with homicides at a level not seen since the 1990s.

A coalition of community activists issued a list of 19 demands to Davis and Rawlings-Blake regarding how the city and the Police Department should handle protests. As demonstrations against police brutality and other simmering issues continue, activists said they want to "work together for a better Baltimore" but demanded immediate change.

"We need calm — not escalation. We need to protect life over property," the Baltimore Uprising coalition wrote in its action statement. "We need to ensure that non-violent protest is permitted. To achieve this, we need agreements and accountability."

Many of the young members of the organizations behind the coalition — comprising the groups Youth as Resources, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, The West Coalition, City Bloc, Baltimore Algebra Project, Baltimore Bloc and Black EXCELLence — attended the hearing and led the disruption, calling on city officials to move in a different direction.

Still, many others at the hearing expressed support for Davis' confirmation. Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker said Davis played a huge role in decreasing crime as a police commander there. Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, the union that represents Baltimore's rank-and-file officers, said Davis is a "cop's cop" who "leads by listening and learning before he acts."

Other supporters included local pastors, the support group Moms of Murdered Sons and law enforcement officials from other jurisdictions in Maryland. Community groups, including the Canton Community Association, also wrote letters in support.

Munir Bahar, leader of the anti-violence 300 Men March organization, said there is a "war" going on in Baltimore and that Davis has proven himself to be a committed ally in the fight against violence.

Lt. Kenneth Butler, president of the Vanguard Justice Society, an association of minority and women officers in Baltimore, said officers feel Davis "will tell us the truth, even if it's something we don't want to hear."

But many activists took to the microphone and denounced what some referred to as a "dog and pony show."

The Rev. Cortly "C.D." Witherspoon called the hearing a "coronation" and said the city's police commissioner should be elected.

The activist coalition, in a statement, expressed deep concerns about Davis' appointment.

"It is clear that since Kevin Davis took office as interim Police Commissioner there has been a heightened aggression from Law Enforcement towards protesters," the coalition wrote. "Now the Mayor has nominated Kevin Davis to carry the full responsibilities as Commissioner. This is most troubling to community organizations and members as we exercise our First Amendment right to hold elected and appointed officials accountable for their actions."

The coalition calls for a ban on military-style police equipment such as armored vehicles and rubber bullets, and for "riot gear" to be used only as a last resort to protect officer safety. They demand that police officers wear badges and name tags at all times, and call for police to respect as "sacred ground" several locations identified by the group as "safe houses" for protesters. They call for alternate routes to be created for commuters and other travelers to get around protests.

Makayla Gilliam-Price, 17, a Baltimore City College High School senior and a founding member of City Bloc, said the rights of protesters — especially youth protesters and students — have been "neglected in the past few months, especially under Kevin Davis."

The coalition objected to the arrests of several protesters during recent hearings in the criminal case against six Baltimore police officers in the arrest and death of Gray. The activists said police tactical decisions forced protesters into the street, where they were arrested "under the charge of impeding traffic."

The coalition wrote that during the pretrial hearings, "We noticed officers without badges and name tags, undercover cops acting as protesters carrying firearms, and wrongful arrests — all practices that must be halted."

In an interview with The Baltimore Sun last month, Davis said he believes his "strategy when it comes to protests is being misrepresented as way too far to the right than it really is," and that he wants to meet with community activists and other leaders to discuss the best way for police to facilitate peaceful protests — particularly as trials of the officers are scheduled beginning next month.

At the hearing on Wednesday, Davis also expressed a desire to connect with the protesters. "I respect and will fight for the right of Americans to peacefully protest," he said.

After the hearing ended late Wednesday, Davis said he understood why the protesters disrupted it.

"It's part of the whole process. It's not upsetting. It's part of where the city is right now," he said. "This is a unique time in the city's history."

krector@baltsun.com

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