Mayor turns to playbook she helped write after Ferguson

Mayor convened group of clergy, activists to seek advice after Freddie Gray's death.

The morning after Freddie Gray's death, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake sat at a table with two dozen clergy members, activists and community leaders she had invited to City Hall.

What more could she and Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts be doing to address concerns, the mayor asked the group. She described what she was doing to try to get answers. She asked them to implore their communities to stay calm.

Rawlings-Blake was taking a page from a playbook that she helped write in the months after Ferguson, Mo., exploded in riots last year following the fatal shooting of the unarmed Michael Brown by a police officer.

She and Batts were part of a small group of mayors and law enforcement officials convened by the U.S. Conference of Mayors to come up with ways the nation's cities could improve police-community relations.

One recommendation from the report, issued in January, is proving particularly relevant as Rawlings-Blake and Batts find themselves trying to quell turbulence in their own city over the death of Gray from injuries he sustained while in custody. The advice: Ensure timely and accurate information.

Rawlings-Blake, Batts and Deputy Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez spent more than half an hour Monday afternoon at police headquarters offering an account of what's known about the spinal cord injury Gray sustained after his arrest April 12 and their quest for answers about what led to his death a week later on Sunday.

The mayor is getting some credit for the news conference, but many in Baltimore also say answers are too slow in coming. Batts says it will take until May 1 before the police investigation is complete, and it's not clear when the report will be made public.

"That seems like a long, long time," said Ralph E. Moore, community activist and program manager for Restoration Gardens, a center in Park Heights for formerly homeless youths. "That's what's creating the anger and frustration and more fear. It feels like some manipulation could happen, like they need the time to put their story together."

The Police Department has not responded to questions about why the investigation will take that long, though some observers point out that past probes have taken much longer. The mayor has said that part of the delay is due to the time it will take to complete an autopsy, which typically takes about a month. Rawlings-Blake and Gov. Larry Hogan have pressed the state medical examiner to release preliminary information as soon as possible.

While Moore and other observers say city leaders should be getting more information out and quicker, they also say officials appear to have learned the lessons of Ferguson.

"There's universal agreement that Ferguson represented the nadir of appropriate communication and transparency," said Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and a University of Maryland law professor.

Ifill, who has been tweeting frequently and using the #FreddieGray hashtag, said city officials should have released more information in the days after the 25-year-old's arrest.

"Where the city could have done better is in the week before Freddie Gray died," Ifill said. "Many people have been asking for answers, to see the police report, why Gray was approached by police. And since his death, we still have unanswered questions."

But Ifill said she believes officials have stepped up this week, and praises Rawlings Blake and Batts for the Monday news conference, as well as the commissioner's visit Tuesday to Gilmor Homes to talk to residents.

Rawlings-Blake pledged transparency in providing information to the public and a commitment to continue reforms to the Police Department

"This is a very, very tense time for Baltimore, and I understand the community's frustration," she said, looking into a bank of television cameras. "I understand it because I am frustrated. I am angry that we are here again, that we have had to tell another mother that their child is dead. I am frustrated that not only we are here but that we don't have all of the answers."

Ifill said the mayor's putting a voice to her own feelings helps effectively communicate the urgency she feels.

"The mayor has spoken about her own frustrations and questions, and seemed quite sincere," Ifill said. "It would do them well to continue that kind of direct communication. It's important for people to see you and hear you."

Ifill said the fact that Rawlings Blake and Batts are themselves African-American is meaningful as events continue to unfold.

"They get the way this issue resonates with the public," said Ifill, who is African-American. "They understand how deeply it resonates, how it raises powerful questions about our status in the community, and how we protect our families."

Gray was black. Cellphone video shows that at least three white officers were among those involved in his arrest, though the Police Department says the six who were suspended with pay afterward include both white and black officers.

Rawlings-Blake has appeared on national television throughout this week, at times appearing defensive as she described her intention to equip city police with body cameras. On an episode of MSNBC's "Morning Joe," she misspoke when asked how soon officers would have them. She said she planned to implement a pilot program "this week," instead of this year.

Matthew Crenson, political science professor emeritus at the Johns Hopkins University, said Rawlings-Blake — who often appears stoic — could stand to be more demonstrative in her delivery.

"She tends to come across as rather impassive," Crenson said. "She doesn't easily express emotion of any kind. That may limit her effectiveness."

Because the General Assembly did not agree to her proposal to amend the state's bill of rights for police, the mayor's ability to act swiftly to discipline trouble officers is limited, Crenson said. He said she must continue to work to communicate that message to the public.

Munir Bahar, a longtime community activist and an organizer of the 300 Men March, said one of the biggest challenges facing the mayor is the desire for some to rush to judgment, or to incite violence by verbally "putting gasoline on a fire."

Bahar said he's satisfied Rawlings-Blake has done what she can to keep the city calm, and to lead Baltimore through one of the most trying times of her tenure as mayor. He was one of the community leaders who joined the mayor at Monday's meeting at City Hall.

"It's what leadership should do — talk amongst the people and ask for ideas — and that's what she did," Bahar said. "The mayor does not have the power to make 600,000 people move left when she says move left. That's the job of community leaders. It's the mayor's job to engage those community leaders."

She'll continue those efforts when she sits down with Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, better known as BUILD, on Friday. Its co-chair, the Rev. Andrew Foster Connors, said he's been hearing "a deep distrust of all of the city's leadership, whether it's listening to the deep, deep pain that is out there."

Foster Connors said Gray's arrest and death "brings to the surface" systemic problems that the city needs to address, such as the lack of adequate employment and opportunities for young people.

"We need a new level of urgency in the city," he said. "It's going to take a different kind of engagement and listening from the city's leadership."

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