Baltimore businesses destroyed during riots sue city officials for failing to prevent violence

Dozens of Baltimore business owners are suing city officials, including the police department and former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, saying they mishandled the city's response to the rioting in 2015.

In a nearly 700-page complaint filed in federal court this week, more than 60 plaintiffs say city officials failed to prevent the looting and rioting that erupted after the arrest and death of Freddie Gray in April 2015, despite warnings the city would experience violence.

More than 380 businesses, including many located south of North Avenue in West Baltimore, were damaged or destroyed. Property losses were estimated at nearly $13 million.

The plaintiffs are suing under the Maryland riot act statute, which allows parties to bring a claim against the city for property damage during civil unrest. They name Rawlings-Blake and former Police Commissioner Anthony Batts, who were in office at the time of the riots, current Mayor Catherine Pugh, the City Council, city police and the state as defendants. They are seeking an unspecified amount in damages.

The plaintiffs allege that Rawlings-Blake took too long to sign an executive order implementing the city's emergency plan to protect city residents and property.

"Widespread rioting was well underway, and much of the property that the executive order was passed to protect was already being destroyed," they write.

They say the citywide curfew imposed the next day and the arrival of the Maryland National Guard and other state resources came too late.

"This lawsuit is the result of the City and the other Defendants failing to do right by these property and business owners," Peter K. Hwang, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said in a statement. "The City and other Defendants failed them when they adopted a policy of restraint and issued stand-down orders, caring more about the public perception that they feared would result with increased police presence than preventing what were clearly preventable riots."

A lawyer listed for the city in court records, Batts and a spokesman for Pugh did not respond to requests for comment. Rawlings-Blake declined to comment.

The lawsuit includes a detailed time line leading up to the riots, beginning with Gray's arrest on April 12, 2015, and including public statements, memos and emails in which officials describe their concerns about the potential for violence.

Gray, 25, died after suffering a severe spinal cord injury in police custody. State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby filed criminal charges against six police officers. All pleaded not guilty. None was convicted.

The plaintiffs describe protests that began outside the Western District police station after Gray's arrest. The complaint includes public comments from Batts and Gov. Larry Hogan acknowledging, days before the riots in Baltimore, other protests that became violent elsewhere in the nation, including in Ferguson, Mo.

The plaintiffs note that leave for police officers was canceled the weekend before Gray's funeral. The riots erupted on the day of the funeral.

The plaintiffs say officers were instructed to stand down during the rioting. They quote from a Baltimore police union "after-action report" in which the union said officers were told "looting is expected. Let it happen."

On the day the union released the report, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake called it a "trumped-up politicial document full of baseless accusations, finger-pointing and personal attacks." Batts said no one in his command gave an order to stand down.

The plaintiffs quote Rawlings-Blake saying at a news conference that "we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well."

She was speaking about property damage near Camden Yards during a protest on April 25, two days before the more widespread riots.

The quote drew national attention. On April 27, after the riots and looting had erupted, she said her words had been mischaracterized.

"I made it very clear that we balance a very fine line between giving peaceful protesters space to protest," she said at the second news conference. "What I said is, in doing so, people can hijack that and use that space for bad. I did not say we were accepting of it."

Hwang said the city used "underhanded tactics to try to trick these business and property owners into signing releases" to limit liability.

The Baltimore Development Corp. started the Baltimore Business Recovery Initiative to provide financial assistance to businesses damaged during the riots. But the plaintiffs say the Storefront Recovery Grant Program offered $5,000 to individual businesses, and required business owners to waive any claims against the city.

"These waiver provisions were only included when applicants — many of whom could not speak or read English — were provided with hard copies of the applications and asked to sign," the plaintiffs say.

Baltimore Development Corp. President William Cole said Wednesday he did not remember the legal details of the recovery programs. He referred questions to the city's law department.

The plaintiffs were among the businesses owners who did not sign the waivers.

John Chae, one the the plaintiffs, owned Fireside North Liquors on North Avenue. He said he was attacked by looters with bottles and bricks, knocking him unconscious. He woke up to find his store on fire.

"I've lost so much, my livelihood," he said. "I've got to get something returned so I can get my life back."

Chae expressed frustration at city officials, who he said did not offer support to rebuild.

Chae said his liquor store suffered about $500,000 in damage, which insurance didn't fully cover. He said he sold the property but hasn't recouped his losses.

He has since opened a UPS store in Baltimore County to provide for his family, including a son who was born just before the riots. He has no plans to return to Baltimore.

"Why would I?" he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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