'Hold the line' commands protected lives during riot, police say

Police respond to officers' claim they were ordered to do nothing during riots.

Baltimore police commanders acknowledge that they ordered officers not to engage rioters multiple times on the day of Freddie Gray's funeral but said they did so to protect officers and citizens as they prioritized life over property.

In an interview with The Baltimore Sun, police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts and six top commanders who directed deployments on April 27 denied that they gave blanket orders to do nothing as rioters looted, raided businesses and even attacked officers with impunity.

More than two months after riots broke out across Baltimore, top brass and rank-and-file officers continue to spar over how platoons of officers were deployed that day. About 160 officers were injured in the riots and businesses suffered millions of dollars in damage.

Batts has repeatedly denied issuing a "stand down" order — akin to ordering a withdrawal — while officers say they were in effect given such an order, either over the radio or in person, when they were told "do not engage" or "hold the line."

Commanders told The Sun that they asked officers to "hold the line" as part of an overall deployment strategy to create a barrier between rioters and police operations and potentially vulnerable people. If officers broke lines during a face-off with rock-throwing protesters, for instance, they could be isolated and surrounded by mobs. And if officers broke the line to make arrests, they might have been forced to guard them amid all the chaos when transport vans weren't available.

"There's an amount of discipline necessary to navigate your way through a civil disturbance," Deputy Commissioner Kevin Davis said.

But some officers say they should have been able to break their shoulder-to-shoulder lines and charge rioters, make arrests and quell the disturbance. The police union supports their claims, and the organization is expected to release an "after action report" in the coming weeks that should include many first-hand accounts from officers.

The union has requested texts, emails and radio transmissions between police commanders and City Hall for review. As of Tuesday, the union had received only one tape from the voluminous riot transmission record.

The police union's president, Lt. Gene Ryan, said the Police Department could clear up any misconceptions or rumors by releasing the requested communications.

"If they have nothing to hide — and they always talk about being transparent — how come they haven't given me the tapes of the radio transmissions?" Ryan said. "If they have nothing to hide, why not give me what we asked them for?"

Police have said they will share information, and both the agency and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake say they have called for their own probes into how deployments were handled.

Some officers have said they believe the mayor was behind the alleged "stand down" order so Baltimore police would not look as aggressive as body-armor-wearing officers responding to unrest last year in Ferguson, Mo.

Rawlings-Blake has denied that and said she would never allow people to loot, destroy or burn businesses.

"The mayor never gave an order to police to stand down, and there have been multiple officers who have come forward and have said there was no such order given either by the mayor or by the command staff," spokesman Kevin Harris said. "I can say unequivocally that the mayor never gave such an order or told the command staff to give such an order."

Batts and his top commanders said officers are confusing "stand down" with "hold the line" — a command they acknowledge was given repeatedly.

Their objective was simple, according to Deputy Commissioner Dean Palmere: "Protect assets, protect life."

An attorney for several officers who were injured during the riots and have filed workers' compensation claims said many of his clients contend that when commanders ordered officers not to engage rioters, they were putting all officers in danger.

"At Mondawmin, they were getting pummeled there, and there were commanders behind them saying 'Don't engage,'" Baltimore attorney Warren S. Alperstein said.

Gray was arrested on April 12 in West Baltimore after officers on bicycles said he ran from them after making eye contact. Police found what they say was an illegal pocket knife and cuffed his hands and legs and put him in the back of a police transport van.

Police and prosecutors say officers denied Gray medical help, and he was found unresponsive by the time the van arrived at the Western District police station. He had suffered a spinal injury and died a week later.

The Baltimore state's attorney's office charged six officers involved in the arrest or transport of Gray with a range of criminal charges including second-degree murder and reckless endangerment. The officers have pleaded not guilty.

Gray's death launched Baltimore into weeks of protests that culminated with a day of rioting across the city, including arson, looting and violent clashes between police and rock throwers.

More than 380 businesses reported damage, and 61 buildings were burned, according to city officials.

Officers sustained injuries ranging "from concussions to fractures to really bad head wounds, facial wounds, stitches, staples," Alperstein said.

Alperstein said his clients understand the directive to not engage was a planned strategy. "Everybody that I've talked to said it was very clear we weren't to engage," Alperstein said.

But Alperstein said police should have been better prepared for violence on Monday, April 27. Protesters had thrown bottles at officers outside the Western District police station on the day Gray died. And violence escalated on Saturday, April 25, when rioters broke windows, destroyed police cars and hurled large objects at officers outside Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Some officers say police commanders set the tone for Monday by also taking a hands-off approach on Saturday.

Commanders counter that police did make about 13 arrests on that day, even while they were outnumbered and outflanked.

Other area law enforcement agencies assisted city police during the riots on Monday.

Baltimore County police spokesman Cpl. John Wachter said he has seen television news reports and heard rumors about city officers being told to "stand down." But he said he doesn't have information that county officers were told to stand down.

Wicomico County Sheriff Michael A. Lewis said his officers heard orders for police to avoid engaging rioters. Lewis said he never heard a direct "stand down" order, but the message was clear.

"I never heard the order 'stand down,'" he said. "What I heard was 'hold the line, hold the line, retreat, retreat,' as guys were shouting, 'They're hitting us with bottles; they're hitting us with bricks.'"

Lewis and his team got to Baltimore around 2:10 a.m. on April 28 and were assigned to guard Baltimore police headquarters. Throughout the night until about 4:30 a.m., Lewis said he heard calls for help from officers over police communications.

"Police officers screaming on the radio," Lewis recalls. "Everybody could hear what was going on. Those guys getting their asses kicked. I repeatedly heard, 'Hold the line, hold the line. Do not go after them.'"

Baltimore police acknowledge that officers didn't have adequate riot gear other than helmets. Some officers were still getting shields days later, and police did not have enough "turtle gear," or body armor to equip all officers.

Asked why, Palmere said, Baltimore police are not alone.

"Every major police organization is upgrading their gear," the deputy commissioner said.

Palmere was among several officers involved in deployments who unequivocally said they never told officers to stand down, withdraw or relax. They included Deputy Commissioner Kevin Davis, Lt. Col. Melissa Hyatt, Lt. Col. Sean Miller, Acting Lt. Col. William Marcus and Maj. Marc Partee.

Over nearly three hours, the commanders discussed how they had prepared for violence on April 27 before unexpected flashpoints began popping up all over the city, spreading officers too thin.

Before the riots began, Hyatt, the police incident commander that day, had prioritized how officers would respond to violence. Most officers were assigned to form "skirmish lines" or a unified front that aimed to stop protesters and, later, rioters from breaking through and outflanking police.

Tactical "arrest teams" were put on standby to make arrests as soon as property was destroyed or front-line officers were threatened.

Behind the lines, police wanted to keep access open for arrest teams, police transport wagons, paramedics, firefighters and reinforcements. The lines were also created to protect injured officers, as well as the more than a dozen people police did arrest.

Many times, Hyatt said, incident command was deciding how to redeploy officers to areas where civilian and police lives were being threatened. Officers were sometimes told to stand by. Street-level commanders kept asking to be allowed to make arrests, Hyatt said, but incident command was evaluating if officers were needed elsewhere or if transport vans could get there.

Leaving skirmish lines would open up holes for attack, leaving important access points inaccessible and putting injured officers behind the lines at risk, commanders said.

"If five or 10 jump out to arrest someone," Miller said, rioters now have a hole to run through and attack "the backs" of officers.

Batts acknowledged that police were consistently outnumbered and outflanked — something he said he foresaw when he asked area law enforcement agencies to send Baltimore at least 1,000 officers days before any violence occurred.

Baltimore police received 200 extra officers in the days leading up to violence. At Mondawmin Mall, about 150 to 200 officers responded on the afternoon riots began. As violence spread, many officers were redeployed — but police couldn't abandon areas they had under control. Lines became thinner and thinner, Batts said.

While commanders said they understand officers' frustration watching looters smash open stores but insist that holding the line was often the best way to keep officers safe.

"It's a protective feature," Hyatt said.

Baltimore Sun reporters Luke Broadwater and Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.

jgeorge@baltsun.com

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