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Baltimore police announce plans to create information center in case of future unrest

Are they ready for the worst? With the trial coming up for the six officers charged in connection with Freddie Gray's death, Baltimore City leaders reassured the community that they're working to stop potential unrest.

Baltimore police will establish a command center to coordinate and release emergency communications should the city face future unrest, interim police Commissioner Kevin Davis said Thursday.

The creation of a Joint Information Center — a gathering place for public information officers from city, state and federal agencies, hospitals, churches, universities, businesses and other institutions — addresses a key criticism that surfaced after rioting erupted in April: the lack of communication from and between government agencies.

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Davis said all agencies "that we may call upon to assist with unrest scenarios" will be invited to the center, as a way to streamline communication, relay factual information and ensure rapid delivery of emergency announcements.

"In the event unrest visits the city," Davis said, the agency representatives "will physically be in the same room and will literally, face to face, be sharing information."

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the decision to establish the center is an example of steps the city is taking in advance of potential protests as court hearings in the Freddie Gray case near.

"We've studied the tapes. We've studied our operations. We've ordered equipment and increased training," the mayor said at a news conference outside City Hall, flanked by Davis and other top officials. "The collaboration that was in place before has been strengthened. We're ready."

Gray, 25, died in April after suffering a spinal cord injury in police custody. On the day he was buried, the city erupted in riots, arson and looting.

Six officers who were involved in Gray's arrest and transport have been charged with violations ranging from misconduct in office to second-degree murder. All have pleaded not guilty.

Over the next two weeks, a judge will hear arguments from prosecutors and defense attorneys on whether the charges should be dismissed, whether State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby should be removed from the case, and whether the trial should be moved out of Baltimore.

The Joint Information Center would be established only in the event of a civil disturbance, officials said. While agency spokesmen would gather there, other officials would be stationed at the city's Emergency Operations Center, where they would make tactical decisions and deploy resources, as they did during the unrest after Gray's funeral April 27.

Officials want to avoid a repeat of that day, when communications among government officials broke down.

The Baltimore Sun reviewed 7,000 emails, records and other documents from that day. In one email, William M. Johnson, the city's transportation director, lambasted the city's leadership for failing to provide information as youths clashed with police at Mondawmin Mall.

"This issue needs to be corrected unless I am the only person who finds this unacceptable," Johnson wrote to mayoral aides as television stations broadcast images of the rock-throwing youths and people looting businesses.

"Local news stations are reporting on what is happening, downtown buildings are closing early, and when the City looks to the Administration for leadership and answers, we don't know or we are the last to provide any guidance due to this protocol."

T.J. Smith, who was named chief spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department this month, said the information center wasn't created to address any one deficiency identified after the riots, but was seen as a best practice to develop.

"From feedback from our partners and our critics, we felt like that is something we could improve upon," said Smith, who was chief spokesman for the Anne Arundel County Police Department during the Baltimore unrest. Such centers "are a normal course of businesses."

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Smith said developing messages for the public from a central location will also help agencies and institutions disseminate information internally. That could prevent a situation in which officials first hear about problems "on the news or on Twitter."

"This streamlines the communications effort; it makes it a lot clearer," Smith said. "You have everyone who is a stakeholder involved in the layers of communications from the beginning, and not finding out on the back end."

Doug Ward, director of the Division of Public Safety Leadership at the Johns Hopkins University, called the plan to establish the communication center the "reasonable and smart thing to do."

"What you're seeing is lessons learned," Ward said. "When you're in the crisis it's too late to put together a plan to get everyone together."

Eric Shirk, spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan, didn't address the creation of the information center directly, but said emergency preparedness is a top priority for the governor.

"Public safety is of the utmost importance to the Hogan Administration and we look forward to learning more about these initiatives," Shirk said in a statement.

A spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency said it stands ready to participate in the Joint Information Center.

Spokesman Chas Eby said such centers "are a way to ensure that government agencies and partners are issuing a comprehensive message to our residents to best keep them informed and can be an important tool for communications efforts."

Officials at the City Hall news conference Thursday also discussed plans for the return of 84,000 city schools students next week.

Baltimore schools CEO Gregory Thornton said 100 high school students will meet Saturday at Coppin State University to talk about the upcoming court proceedings and to discuss decision-making and leadership development. The students selected are grade-level ambassadors, student government leaders and members of fall sports teams.

"We've been very deliberate," Thornton said. "We want to use this as a teaching opportunity for our children. As our kids come back, we're going to create the space to answer any questions that they might have, and work with them to understand the judicial processes and how they work."

Thornton said the school system has worked with the Maryland Transit Administration — which transports 27,000 students daily on its buses — to help address potential problems. One key area, he said, has been the bus depot at Mondawmin Mall, through which 5,000 students pass on their way to and from school.

MTA officials have said they stopped bus service at Mondawmin at 2:55 p.m. April 27 — about 10 minutes before the first reported assault on police — at the request of city police. City police have referred questions about the shutdown to the MTA.

The MTA "helped us to identify key points and key stops that we can use to mitigate the crowds," Thornton said. "Due to a very strong collaborative partnership, we strategized to move some of the youngsters away to cut down the amount of traffic that's in the mall."

A district spokeswoman said dismissal times at schools have been staggered to help reduce crowds and manage the flow of students through the Mondawmin hub.

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Rawlings-Blake said she ordered city police to work closely over the summer with the MTA, the schools police force and others to improve training, communication and coordination.

"This school year, as exciting as it is, it's still very different than many others in recent memory," Rawlings-Blake said. "This is the first opening day since the unrest, and I want to make it clear to parents, to students, to administrators, to educators — I want everyone to know that we are ready for a safe and productive school year."

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