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Report details 'major shortcomings' in Baltimore police response to unrest

Independent review of Baltimore unrest finds 'major shortcomings' in police response

As rioting erupted on Baltimore's streets in April, the city police Command Center — where top decision-makers had gathered to get a handle on the situation — was itself in disarray, according to a new review of the agency's response to the unrest.

In a room designed to hold 30 to 40 people, as many as 100 had gathered, some without a clear role. The crowding was so severe that the department's 10-person Analytical Intelligence Section, which was charged with developing information that could help the department deploy resources and anticipate threats, was blocked from its own equipment — and provided just two computers to do its work. The room was so loud the analysts could barely hear threat tips being relayed to them over the phone.

That environment, described as "chaotic" and "distracting" by some in the room, was just one of many "major shortcomings" in the Baltimore Police Department's handling of the unrest, according to a sweeping review by the Police Executive Research Forum, a highly regarded law enforcement think tank based in Washington.

The group's 79-page report, which then-Commissioner Anthony W. Batts requested this summer, is scheduled to be released publicly on Monday but was provided to The Baltimore Sun.

The report — titled "Lessons Learned from the 2015 Civil Unrest in Baltimore" — provides new critiques of key top-level decisions and details that bolster previous criticism. It also highlights continuing gaps in knowledge about how the worst of the rioting, looting and arson erupted, noting that reviewers were "unable to determine who issued the order to cancel bus service" at Mondawmin Mall on April 27 — a decision that left many students stranded in the area that day.

The report detailed a long list of "major findings," reflected in 56 recommendations for the Police Department to implement. It said planning was inadequate, arrest policies were unclear, equipment was severely lacking, officer training was inadequate, mutual aid agreements with other localities were insufficient or unclear, and orders to officers were not clearly defined. Command positions were also changed at times without notice, causing confusion, the report said.

The report is not the first review of the department's actions amid the unrest. On July 8, as forum officials were hosting a daylong "debriefing session" with top commanders and others to gather information for the report, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3 released its own review. The union, which represents the 3,000 rank-and-file officers in the city, said officers had inadequate protective equipment and were put in danger with unclear directives from superiors.

However, the forum report is the first official assessment of the department's performance and the first to be endorsed by city officials. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Batts' replacement, Commissioner Kevin Davis — who plan to discuss the report publicly on Monday — said it includes many recommendations for improvements that the department has already made or is in the process of introducing, as well as useful new suggestions for preparing for future unrest.

"The Mayor appreciates the thoughtful analysis and the constructive points on how we can improve our systems, our communications and our preparations," Howard Libit, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said in a statement. "The Mayor has made it clear that neither she nor Commissioner Davis have been waiting for the final report to make necessary changes. Throughout the summer, they have been outlining the many steps that have been taken which address and correct the issues raised in this report."

The Police Department said it has already made a number of changes, such as the "civil disturbance" training that officers have received, purchases of riot gear and other protective equipment, and aid agreements with surrounding localities.

The department, maintaining that "arrests are a last resort" during protests, said it has tested some of its new methods for handling large-scale incidents at recent demonstrations outside the downtown courthouse. Six officers have been charged in the April arrest and death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, and some pretrial hearings have drawn protesters.

Gray died of injuries sustained while in police custody, and the most serious rioting occurred on the day of his funeral.

Gene Ryan, president of FOP Lodge 3, did not respond to a request for comment on the new report.

The report noted that an "incident of this magnitude and duration would stress the resources of any police agency," and that after the worst of the rioting on April 27, the department identified many problems and improved, as staff members learned on their feet. It said the "courage under pressure of countless [Baltimore Police Department] officers and supervisors should not be lost" amid the report's critiques.

Still, the report highlighted a number of problems in planning, training, communication and other areas.

It said that at roll call meetings before the rioting started, officers had been advised to take a "soft approach" to protesters by avoiding arrests. Later, as protests turned violent, some commanders hesitated to shift from that stance without a new directive from above, frustrating officers who wanted to start arresting those causing the most trouble.

Meanwhile, police commanders on the streets — confronted with swelling crowds, including some lobbing bottles and other debris — did not get timely updates from top officials at the command center, and important tactical decisions were delayed, the report said.

On the single radio channel that police from multiple agencies were using, messages were garbled, making locations of incidents unclear. Baltimore officers caused more confusion by using "10 codes" unique to the city, even though national standards call for radio commands in such situations to be given in plain English. When some Baltimore officers said "10-32," for example, they meant "sufficient units on the scene," but in other Maryland localities, the same code means "man with a gun," the report noted.

Officers desperate for more equipment reported "raiding" the police training academy for any equipment they could find, the report said. As the department began to order new riot gear for all of its officers, logistical personnel were overwhelmed — resulting in some officers getting the wrong equipment, such as masks that didn't match their helmets.

While the city had mutual aid agreements in place with some neighboring localities, it lacked agreements with others — and city lawyers described "drafting contracts with some agencies as those agencies' officers were on the highway headed to Baltimore." Throughout the unrest, confusion remained about the powers outside law enforcement officers had in the city.

The failings were not just incidental, or the result of overwhelming factors on the ground, the report found, but stemmed from a planning model that strayed from national standards. The overarching "operational plan" put in place days before the rioting, when police were anticipating large-scale but mostly peaceful protests, lacked crucial details "such as the assignment of roles and responsibilities," the report found.

"The plan did not account for the possibility that the incident might last longer than a day or two," it said. "And one of the biggest problems with the [Police Department's] operational plan was that many commanders and most patrol officers were not familiar with it."

As Baltimore works to recover, the department must continue to protect protesters' First Amendment rights and boost efforts to engage residents through positive, community policing, the report said.

"Doing so after the unrest may not be easy," it said, but "community relationships are important, especially in difficult times."

krector@baltsun.com

twitter.com/rectorsun

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