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Police union blasts commanders in 'after action review' of riot

The Baltimore Sun
FOP releases review of police response to Baltimore rioting.

The rioting that followed the death of Freddie Gray was "preventable," but the police response was hindered by a leadership that was concerned with image over safety, the city police union charged in a report released Wednesday.

The union's "after action review" compiles accounts from officers to make the case that commanders' orders to avoid engaging the youths who were concentrated around Mondawmin Mall on the afternoon of April 27 emboldened people to riot, allowing the unrest to spiral out of control and spread across the city.

The union said commanders did not want police to be percieved as aggressors, but the result was officers doing nothing in the face of lawlessness.

Officers described being hit with chunks of concrete, sheltering inside businesses and buying their own protective equipment.

"I had never in my 14-year career been as afraid as I was at that moment," one said.

"Decisions implemented by top commanders of the Police Department left officers in harm's way," Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said at a news conference. "Equally as important, the lack of preparation put the very citizens we are sworn to protect in harm's way as well."

Hours after Ryan spoke, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake fired Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts. She told reporters that the union did not influence her decision; earlier, mayoral spokesman Kevin Harris dismissed the FOP report as a "trumped-up politicial document full of baseless accusations, finger-pointing and personal attacks."

Ryan had stopped short of saying the union did not support Batts. He said officers wanted to see Batts "step up," not step down.

The union commissioned the report after officers complained about commands given during the riots.

City Councilman Brandon Scott said it was clear that police were "ill-equipped and ill-prepared," and the union was was right to put pressure on commanders.

"We know that bad decisions were made, and that starts at the top," Scott said.

Del. Curt Anderson, co-chair of the state's new working group on public safety, said the criticism was misplaced.

The Baltimore Democrat said the strategy and tactics employed during the riots were "probably the best considering no police force had been in that type of situation before."

A more aggressive stance, he said, could have ratcheted up the tension.

"These are the rank-and-file officers and sergeants, and sure, they are going to be upset because they wanted to go out there and bust heads and take charge," he said. "That's exactly what we didn't want them to do."

Commanders have acknowledged ordering officers to hold their lines rather than break off in smaller numbers to confront individuals causing damage or threatening officer safety. They said they gave those orders to protect officers and bystanders in the areas suffering the worst of the unrest.

But in its review, the union said the directives were about image, not safety. Officers were told to leave their riot equipment behind or switch to "less-intimidating" uniforms. Batts didn't even want officers to wear sunglasses, according to the union report, saying he didn't want them to "look so Billy Badass."

"With a potential riot looming, command staff was more concerned with officers not wearing black gloves and looking intimidating," one officer said in the review.

The union said officers who wanted to make arrests had to clear them first through civilian attorneys in the department's legal unit. In one account, an officer made an arrest and then was told to release the suspect because it hadn't been approved.

Batts attended a union meeting in May and apologized to officers for putting them in harm's way. Still, the union was particularly critical of him.

One section of the report is titled, "Commissioner Batts seeks to divide the BPD rather than unite it." In its conclusion, the union asked, "Does Commissioner Batts have the leadership skills necessary to get the job done?"

The union cited remarks they say Batts made while he was police chief in Oakland, Calif. According to the union, Batts said police deliberately allowed protesters to break into a Foot Locker during a disturbance "because we didn't want to look like this was a police action, where we were responding too soon."

The union said Batts told officers two days before the riots that they should not engage until "they [protesters] burned, looted and destroyed the city so that it would show that the rioters were forcing our hand."

Most officers hit the streets with only a helmet, the union said. Some officers purchased their own equipment or borrowed from officers in other jurisdictions.

The gear they were given by the department included gas masks with expired canisters and papers that read, "for lawn care only," helmets without padding, and pairs of equipment, such as helmets and gas masks, that were not compatible with each other, the union said.

The union also criticized the department's public announcement of an alleged gang plan to target officers in the hours before the unrest. It later proved to be unfounded.

"The credible threat was, in fact, an unconfirmed rumor," the report said. "Circulating this rumor undermined the credibility of law enforcement and unnecessarily inflamed tensions."

Commanders have said they publicized the threat under "exigent" circumstances, and would do it again. The union said that was an example that the agency is "not committed to fixing the problems exposed by the riots."

More than 150 officers were injured by bricks, rocks and other objects during the unrest on April 27.

Gray, 25, died after sustaining a severe spinal cord injury while in police custody. His death galvanized protesters from Baltimore and beyond, who said it was the latest example of an entrenched culture of police brutality in the city.

On the day of his funeral, the city erupted in riots. Hundreds of businesses were damaged as looting and arson broke out in West Baltimore and across the city.

Tensions between police commanders and the union since the riots have remained high, just as crime in the city has spiked and the number of arrests has dropped off.

Some officers have said the decision of State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby to file charges against six officers in Gray's arrest and death has made them hesitant to arrest suspects.

The union has defended the six officers, who are scheduled to go to trial in October. All have pleaded not guilty.

The release of the union review came on the day that the Police Executive Research Forum was to begin an independent review of the police department's handling of the riots at the request of the department.

Eugene O'Donnell is a former police officer and prosecutor who now teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. He said much of what's in the union report is "inarguably true" and introspection is important. But he questioned whether any city is equipped to handle such a situation.

"What should a police department that is not properly equipped, not properly trained, has no game plan — what should they be doing [in such a situation]?" he asked.

Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.

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