Protesters issue demands for Baltimore police ahead of commissioner's appointment hearing

Community activists issue demands for Baltimore police ahead of commissioner's appointment hearing

A coalition of community activists in Baltimore has issued a list of 19 demands to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Interim Police Commissioner Kevin Davis regarding how the city and its police department handle protests, saying they want to "work together for a better Baltimore" as demonstrations against police brutality and other simmering issues continue.

"We need calm — not escalation. We need to protect life over property," the Baltimore Uprising coalition wrote in its action statement. "We need to ensure that non-violent protest is permitted. To achieve this, we need agreements and accountability."

The demands come as the City Council's appointments committee is scheduled to consider on Wednesday afternoon a request by Rawlings-Blake to confirm Davis as the city's permanent top cop after several months of him serving in an interim capacity.

The coalition — comprised of the groups Youth as Resources, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, The West Coalition, City Bloc, Baltimore Algebra Project, Baltimore Bloc and Black EXCELLence — called for Rawlings-Blake and Davis to respond to their demands immediately, in part because they have deep concerns about Davis' appointment.

"It is clear that since Kevin Davis took office as interim Police Commissioner there has been a heightened aggression from Law Enforcement towards protesters," the coalition wrote. "Now the Mayor has nominated Kevin Davis to carry the full responsibilities as Commissioner. This is most troubling to community organizations and members as we exercise our First Amendment right to hold elected and appointed officials accountable for their actions."

Some of the demands, published online this week, mirror others seen in cities across the country where unrest has followed the deaths of young black men during or as a result of altercations with police. In Baltimore, protests against police brutality were staged following the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who suffered a severe spinal cord injury while in police custody, and his funeral on April 27 was followed by an intense period of rioting, looting and arson.

The coalition calls for a ban on military-style police equipment such as armored vehicles and rubber bullets, and for "riot gear" to be used only as a last resort to protect officer safety. They demand that police officers wear badges and name tags at all times, and for media and legal observers to be allowed to "do their jobs freely."

The group also calls for police to respect as "sacred ground" several locations identified by the group as "safe houses" for protesters — not to be entered without a warrant and never entered with sealed or so-called "no knock" warrants. They call for alternate routes to be created for commuters and other travelers to get around protests, but also call on police to "allow protests to take and occupy larger and more disruptive spaces than would normally be tolerated," and for "longer periods of time than would normally be tolerated in the interest of constitutional rights."

Davis was named interim commissioner after Rawlings-Blake fired his predecessor, Anthony W. Batts, amid a huge spike in violent crime in July that followed the unrest. The mayor has said she fired Batts in part because questions about his handling of the unrest had become a distraction.

T.J. Smith, the police department's chief spokesman, responded Wednesday to a request for comment on the demands by saying, "We look forward to continued productive dialogue with the protest community. Our mutual concerns will serve to ensure a safe protest environment in the days ahead."

In an interview with The Baltimore Sun last month, Davis said he believes his "strategy when it comes to protests is being misrepresented as way too far to the right than it really is," and that he wants to meet with community activists and other leaders to discuss the best way for police to facilitate peaceful protests moving forward — particularly ahead of the trials of six Baltimore police officers charged in Gray's arrest and death.

"I promise them I'm going to be open minded and if they could in turn be open minded, maybe by the time the trial is here we can figure something different out," Davis said. "I'm not opposed to any idea that works. But what I can't create is an environment for a very small number of people who will cloak themselves in that protester environment with the intent on starting a riot. Baltimore can't have another riot. We can't."

Howard Libit, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said she and Davis "have made it clear that they are working hard to protect the First Amendment rights of all peaceful demonstrations in the City of Baltimore, to ensure that demonstrators' voices and messages are heard."

"They expect that the Baltimore Police Department and all partner law enforcement agencies will follow that same philosophy," Libit said. "But when protesters violate the law, they expect that the law will be enforced."

If approved by the appropriations committee, Davis' appointment would then have to be approved by the full City Council, possibly as early as Monday. The Board of Estimates, which is controlled by Rawlings-Blake, would then have to approve his contract, which was negotiated by the Rawlings-Blake administration and does not need the approval of the City Council.

Makayla Gilliam-Price, 17, a Baltimore City College High School senior and a founding member of City Bloc, said the timing of the demands was in part tied to Davis' appointment hearing, because the rights of protesters — especially youth protesters and students — have been "neglected in the past few months, especially under Kevin Davis."

But it also comes ahead of the first trial in the Gray case, which is set to begin Nov. 30, and follows the gathering in Washington for the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March this past weekend.

"We thought it would be a nice momentum starter for that, but also playing off of the momentum that has already been set," she said. "We thought that this would be a little bit more of a concrete action."

In its action statement, the coalition said it took a previous comment by Davis that he would treat "protest like protest and a riot like a riot" as a "veiled threat to protest activity in Baltimore." It also objected to the arrests of several protesters during recent hearings in the Gray case, saying police tactical decisions forced protesters into the street — where they were then arrested "under the charge of impeding traffic."

The coalition also wrote that during the pre-trial hearings, "we noticed officers without badges and name tags, undercover cops acting as protesters carrying firearms, and wrongful arrests — all practices that must be halted."

In its demands, it calls for police to be "more tolerant of minor law breaking (such as thrown water bottles) when deciding whether to escalate the use of force," and to provide "every latitude to allow for free assembly and expression, treating protesters as citizens and not 'enemy combatants.'"

It also demands that, in the event protesters are arrested, that their bonds be set at normal levels, that medical care be "liberally" provided to them, and that their attorneys be allowed access to them. It demands that only "individual lawbreakers" be targeted for arrest, and that police ban the use of devices that interfere with communication devices like cell phones.

It also demands that the police department make clear its command structure, particularly during events in which law enforcement officers from surrounding jurisdictions are called into the city to assist the Baltimore department.

The coalition's 19th and final demand refers back to all the others.

"Every attempt should be made to communicate with protesters to reach 'common sense' agreements based on these protocols, both ahead of time and at the scene of protests."

Some of the groups involved in the coalition are also joining with others -- including prominent civil rights leaders like former NAACP President Ben Jealous and large organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland -- in another coalition called the Campaign for Justice, Safety and Jobs. That coalition plans to call for police reform at a rally Friday at the Baltimore War Memorial plaza in front of City Hall.

At the rally, Jealous, Pleasant Hope Baptist Church Pastor Dr. Heber Brown and youth leaders from Baltimore Youth 4 Justice plan to issue a six-point plan of action for police reform, based on a 25-page report produced in conjunction with the Center for American Progress that calls for "a greater reliance on quality over quantity of arrests, an end to the city's gag order on victims of police misconduct, and a commitment to get body cameras on the street within one year."

"For too long, police in Baltimore have been able to act with impunity," Jealous said in a statement. "With the national spotlight on Baltimore, the city's elected and appointed officials will need to respond to the long-standing demands of the community."

krector@baltsun.com

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