6:25 PM EDT, May 15, 2012
New details of the Baltimore police response to a particularly large, unruly and violent crowd of youths downtown over theSt. Patrick's Dayweekend not only raise the question of whether the department has the resources it needs to anticipate and respond to such incidents but also whether it can be trusted to level with the public when similar disturbances occur in the future. City officials are right to be concerned about protecting Baltimore's reputation as a tourist attraction and destination for out-of-town visitors, but not at the cost of whitewashing episodes that might tarnish that image.
The initial police accounts of the disturbance that began early that Saturday evening seemed to downplay the event, noting that large crowds had gathered near the Inner Harbor but suggesting the situation posed no serious problems. But as The Sun's Peter Hermann reported this week after an exhaustive review of the police dispatch calls recorded that night, the reality was quite different. In fact, for reasons that remain unclear, hundreds of young people from different parts of the city had suddenly converged on the harbor, where they began attacking other youths, pounding on passing cars and harassing pedestrians in a wild melee that swarmed through the streets for hours.
Witnesses described a chaotic scene as police tried to restore order by blocking streets and intersections to divert the crowd away from downtown. But it appears most of the youths managed to stay one step ahead of the officers, who were struggling to keep up with them. By the time the rampage ended, one youth had been stabbed, a tourist had been robbed, beaten and stripped of his clothes, and others had been forced to take refuge inside a hotel lobby to escape an angry mob.
This certainly wasn't the family friendly image of Baltimore that officials wanted to project. And no doubt it was embarrassing to a police department that prides itself on having sharply reduced crime rates in recent years. But the public has got to be able to trust the information city officials put out, especially when timely disclosures are essential to apprising people of situations that potentially threaten public safety. This was a situation in which the police department apparently was overwhelmed before it realized what it was dealing with, and it never quite managed to catch up with a series of rapidly unfolding events.
That's why it's important to ask whether the department has the tools and training it needs to deal with similar incidents in the future. The so-called "flash mob" that rampaged through Baltimore's Inner Harbor is similar to those that have occurred in Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Washington, which all appear to have been instigated by youths communicating to their peers through social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. It hardly matters what attracts people to participate in such gatherings, however; what's important is that when they turn violent, the normal inhibitions that keep most people from committing crimes get tossed aside, and a mob mentality takes over.
This suggests prevention may be more effective in protecting the public from such gatherings than trying to cope with a situation once it is already out of control. Police plan ahead for events such as concerts, ballgames, parades and New Year's celebrations, where large crowds are expected. But the point of events like the one on St. Patrick's day is for huge numbers of people to suddenly appear out of nowhere, perform some act (be it a mass tree-planting or a riot), then just as quickly disappear.
Officers in other cities have found ways to monitor the same social networking sites used by the young people who organize the events to learn when, where and for what purpose gatherings are likely to occur. That's a technique Baltimore should master; had police known even half an hour earlier that up to 500 kids were about to descend on the harbor, they might have marshaled more resources to secure the area and avoid the mayhem that followed.
As it was, officers probably did the best they could under the circumstances, and the fact that there were relatively few serious injuries and no deaths was a testament to their professionalism. But the city should already be looking ahead to how it will deal with the next crisis. Officials should strive to anticipate when potential disturbances might occur by monitoring the Web, and when something does happen they need to get the facts out quickly. If people believe the police are on top of the situation from start to finish and that they can rely on the information police distribute for their safety, that will do more to burnish Baltimore's image than anything officials might achieve by trying to sugarcoat the truth.
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