Baltimore preparing for protests during next week's hearing in Freddie Gray case

City officials, police prepare for protests, potential unrest during hearings in Freddie Gray case.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Wednesday that city officials are preparing for protests as court hearings ramp up in the Freddie Gray case by coordinating with law enforcement agencies around the state, upgrading riot gear and conducting crowd-control training.

The mayor also said officials plan to hold educational sessions in schools to explain the justice system to students.

Over the next two weeks, court hearings will be held to consider several key issues in the Gray case, including whether charges should be dismissed, whether Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby should be recused and whether the trials should be moved out of Baltimore. The first is scheduled for Wednesday.

Rawlings-Blake, who has defended the city's response to the unrest and rioting that followed Gray's death in April, stressed that most protests over police brutality have been nonviolent.

"We've identified potential flash points over the next year, and the motions hearing is one of those," Rawlings-Blake said. "While we're preparing, I don't want people to lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of the protests were peaceful. The challenge is when a few people hijack the peaceful protest."

Gray, 25, died after suffering a severe spinal cord injury while in police custody. Six officers involved in his arrest and transport in a police van have been charged with crimes ranging from murder to assault. All of the officers have pleaded not guilty.

On Thursday, Baltimore police plan to meet with law enforcement agencies from around Maryland to discuss the potential for unrest during the hearings.

Col. Charles Kohler, a spokesman for the Maryland National Guard, confirmed that senior military leaders plan to attend the meeting. The Guard, which deployed in Baltimore to help restore order after the riots, recently carried out civil disturbance training at a facility in Edgewood.

Others attending the meeting include top police officials from Baltimore County, Carroll County, Anne Arundel County and the Maryland State Police, those agencies said.

T.J. Smith, chief spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department, said the department is hosting the meeting to discuss law enforcement preparedness, including during the court hearings in the Gray case. The meeting is "one of many" held in the months since the unrest, both with law enforcement and other groups, he said.

"We've met with the chiefs of each college in Baltimore. We've met with community leaders and church groups and other community activists, all in an effort to continue our community outreach and engagement, to have a plan as we get closer to some significant dates involved in the trial of the six officers," Smith said.

"This is communication and making sure that everyone who needs to have a seat at the table and be involved is involved," he said. "We hope we're preparing for no reason, but we need to prepare, and that's the responsible thing to do for public safety."

Also Thursday, Rawlings-Blake, interim Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, Schools CEO Gregory Thornton and law enforcement representatives from the Maryland Transit Administration and City Schools Police plan to announce "improvements and changes" made over the summer regarding students' safety. The mayor asked those agencies to improve coordination and communication after the unrest.

Rawlings-Blake said city and school officials are planning educational sessions during the first week of school, which begins Monday. The idea is not only to explain the justice system but to temper young people's expectations of what might happen during the motions hearing, she said.

Rioting, looting and arson broke out across Baltimore on April 27, hours after Gray's funeral. More than 200 people were arrested during the worst of the rioting, with more than 400 businesses damaged and more than 100 police officers injured.

The city has conducted increased training and purchased new riot gear since the unrest, the mayor said.

"I'm not worried about protests, because when Baltimore people show up to protest, they do it in a way that allows people to focus on the message," Rawlings-Blake said. "We're focused on those individuals who wish to hijack or exploit the challenges we have in Baltimore — that they're not able to disrupt our communities."

Councilman Brandon Scott, vice chairman of City Council's public safety committee, said Baltimore communities and businesses also need to prepare.

"I want people to understand: You can never be totally prepared for something like that," Scott said. "We are better prepared today than we were in April, but more importantly, it's not just government that needs to be more prepared. Anyone who calls themselves a leader — a business leader, community leader, faith leader — has to find a way to help."

Scott said he plans to continue visiting schools and community groups to talk about the judicial process, and what next week's court action means and doesn't mean.

"We have to do a good job explaining to people exactly what's happening," Scott said. "You can never tell them what the outcome will be, but you can help them have a better idea about what the possibilities are."

Scott said it's also important that the police force — including school-based officers — be prepared with the appropriate equipment, such as up-to-date riot gear.

The Baltimore school system has declined to buy new riot gear that union officials have requested for the school police force, which had one officer injured during the riots.

According to a recent email obtained by The Baltimore Sun, the city schools police union made a request for riot gear that was up to industry standard. In the request, Sgt. Clyde Boatwright said that his officers have been issued "non-FEMA certified, sub-standard riot helmets in the wake of civil unrest."

"The helmets that have been issued will not sustain a number of the chemical agents and various projectiles that were used against police during the civil disturbances," he wrote.

In an interview, Boatwright said that about one dozen school police responded to Mondawmin Mall on April 27, where the unrest started with youths engaging in a violent standoff with police. School police officers were not equipped with helmets and shields, he said.

"We were fortunate to not have more officers injured," he said.

With the pending hearings, Boatwright said, school police officers — who have citywide jurisdiction — were concerned about their safety should similar events unfold.

"No one expected what happened on April 27 to occur, and no one was prepared for that," said Boatwright, who responded to Mondawmin. "In the event that some sort of unrest took place again, we wanted to be in possession of the proper equipment."

City school officials said additional riot gear won't be necessary.

"We're not anticipating school police being on the front line," spokeswoman Edie House-Foster said.

Baltimore Sun reporters Jessica Anderson, Ian Duncan, Erica L. Green, Kevin Rector, Yvonne Wenger and Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

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