New video shows eruption of riot at West Baltimore intersection

New video sheds light on how North and Pennsylvania avenues descended into chaos on April 27

Newly released surveillance camera footage from the Baltimore riots shows chaos erupting at North and Pennsylvania avenues, where a crowd breaches and loots stores, destroys police vehicles and sets fires while police stay on the fringe of the action.

With the exception of a brief incursion by a SWAT team, the video shows that officers don't move in for nearly 90 minutes, after the crowd has largely moved on.

The city surveillance camera footage along with police radio transimssions and emails obtained by The Baltimore Sun under a Public Information Act request show how the looting developed April 27 at the intersection that would become a center of demonstrations in the ensuing days.

The materials also offer a fresh view of a moment that has become a flashpoint for police officers critical of their leaders.

The officers say the department held them back from confronting the rioters, allowing more first responders to be injured and more property to be damaged.

City officials say they took a measured approach to a confrontation in which officers were outnumbered.

The rioting erupted hours after the funeral for Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old Baltimore man who died after suffering a severe spinal cord injury in police custody.

More than 380 businesses reported damage and 61 buildings were burned, causing millions of dollars in losses.

The unrest that day began outside Mondawmin Mall, a transportation hub for students getting out of several nearby schools.

April 27 was a Monday — a school day. Officials said they had seen a flier on social media that Mondawmin would be the scene of a "purge" — a reference to a move in which authorities allow a period of unrest.

School officials first saw the flier around midday April 26, according to emails obtained by The Sun, and discussed strategies for handling the issue.

As dismissal loomed, the Maryland Transit Authority shut down its Mondawmin subway and bus station, and police commanders sent dozens of officers to the mall.

The confrontation between students and police was broadcast live on television worldwide: Young people were seen pelting officers with water bottles and rocks; officers are shown advancing and retreating. Skirmishes spilled into residential side streets.

Police radio transmissions show that officers struggled to balance their response. At 2:50 p.m., one can be heard saying, "Let's start corralling these kids and let's start making arrests."

But as the situation worsens — "We're getting creamed!" an officer yells — police are instructed to "hold the line."

"Do not go forward and chase them!" a supervisor says. "Hold that line, hold that line. Do not advance; hold the line."

At about 4:25, a group of people moves south from Mondawmin and swarms the intersection of North and Pennsylvania. They head straight for an unattended police car, surveillance camera footage shows, and start attacking it.

A SWAT team moves in with bean-bag shotguns, and the crowd scrambles to get away. At least one person is pinned down.

But after the SWAT team pulls back, the crowd reassembles and swells.

The surveillance camera footage is one part of a large body of video, audio and documents from the unrest collected by the city. Much of the material — including recordings of the initial confrontation at Mondawmin — remains unreleased.

Police officials said they were unable to respond Monday to a request for comment on the materials described in this report or the events they capture.

Commanders told The Sun last month that they directed officers to "hold the line" as part of an overall strategy to create a barrier between rioters 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.

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

Davis is now the city's interim commissioner, following the dismissal this month of Anthony W. Batts.

The police union, in its review of commanders' response to the unrest, concluded that the department "adopted a passive stance" that "allowed the destruction of personal property and needless injury to first responders."

The union also said officers were inadequately equipped and trained to respond to the unrest.

At 4:30 p.m. at Pennsylvania and North avenues, a report of a "patrol car that's under assault" prompts the SWAT team to move in. It is not clear where the officer who parked in the 1600 block of W. North Ave. is or what he is doing when the crowd swarms the vehicle.

About 4:37, the CVS drugstore is breached. The camera operator pans around and zooms in on men rooting through a parked transit police vehicle.

An armored Baltimore police tactical vehicle called a BearCat can be seen pulling onto the sidewalk and behind the entrance to an underground subway station, where it is out of view of the CVS. A second tactical vehicle joins it, and officers climb inside.

According to radio transmissions, the vehicles arrived to extract a group of MTA officers stuck inside a station.

"We have at least four more MTA police inside," an officer says. "We need another BearCat down here for extraction."

Two minutes earlier, several police vehicles had pulled through the intersection and headed southbound on Pennsylvania Avenue, toward downtown. The radio transmissions indicate police were responding to reports of officers being attacked at Franklin and Paca streets, and were concerned about the downtown area.

"I need to set up a skirmish line in the downtown area too, to keep them out of downtown," an officer says.

Commanders have said they directed officers to form "skirmish lines" —unified fronts that to stop protesters and, later, rioters from breaking through and outflanking police.

At 4:41, a line of police officers can be seen for the first time about a block north of North and Pennsylvania. They hold their position until about 6:05.

Before then, they watch as a check-cashing store and a grocery store are breached, and the CVS is ransacked. People can be seen emerging from the store with armfuls of Tasty-Kakes, detergent and other goods.

A group of men breaks into the trunk of the abandoned police car and is seen taking items. One man wanders away wearing a Baltimore police jacket; another uses yellow "caution" tape as a streamer.

A Maryland Transit Administration vehicle erupts in flames. The tactical vehicles pull out of the area.

Commuters continue to drive along North Avenue through the chaos. Some motorists stop to load up on goods taken from the stores.

Authorities say they have been scouring surveillance footage to identify suspects and make arrests.

At 6:05, two lines of officers begin to move in slowly. Smoke shows from the CVS. At 6:26 p.m., the now-larger line of officers moves into the intersection and eventually seals off the four corners. Firetrucks arrive to extinguish the flames at the CVS.

Protesters confront officers. An officer uses pepper spray to break up a skirmish. One officer appears overcome by the spray. He backs out of the line and falls to his knees.

School system emails show officials had been worried about the "purge" warning — and the potential involvement of students — as well as the general prospect of unrest around Gray's funeral.

Akil Hamm, deputy chief of the Baltimore City School Police Force, learned of the threat shortly after noon April 26.

"The flier has been circulating on social media and I believe it to be creditable," wrote Joe Orenstein, an analyst with the Baltimore police. "If you could, please have the officer who reports to the Watch Center (Unified Command) briefed and knowledgeable about what has been occurring in schools Monday."

On Monday, rumors swirled that students from Frederick Douglass High School, located directly across the street from Mondawmin, were planning to walk out at 3 p.m.

By 11:15 a.m., schools Police Chief Marshall Goodwin was fielding emails from City Hall. An aide to City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young asks: "Do you think it's actually going to happen?"

"Unsure," Goodwin responds. "We have many rumors at this time. Some have not happened thus far today."

At 1:34 p.m., Fred Damron, the deputy chief of the MTA police, emailed Hamm to ask if the district could delay dismissal to reduce the crowds at Mondawmin Mall.

"That's a big ask," Hamm wrote. "I'll check with my higher-ups."

The request came within an hour of the final bell at 99 schools. Schools CEO Gregory Thornton said complying would have been nearly impossible.

"We basically said: We can't turn it in 40 minutes," Thornton said. "We can't get kids ready to go home, notify parents, and ensure their transition home."

Eight minutes after Hamm received the request, a school official said the MTA No. 22 bus wasn't running. The No. 22 is the primary mode of transportation for students from Reach Academy.

School officials did not realize that transportation at the Mondawmin hub — used by more than 5,000 students each school day — had been halted.

Goodwin, the schools police chief, emails district officials: "The decision to shut down the Mondawmin Mall hub was made by MTA officials without any notification to city schools."

MTA officials say the request to shut down the hub came from city police. City police have referred questions to the MTA.

Cody Dorsey, a former student commissioner on the city school board, foresaw the unrest.

Dorsey sent an email to Thornton and his chief of staff early that Sunday, April 26, imploring them to consider closing schools early.

"In light of recent events in our city, it is my sincere belief that closing schools should be considered," Dorsey wrote.

Baltimore Sun reporters Mayah S. Collins and Christina Jedra contributed to this article.

jfenton@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
39°