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Baltimore Police say lessons learned from Freddie Gray unrest aided response to 2020 demonstrations

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison listens to a question from, on right, Wesley Hawkins, of The Nolita Project, at a rally at CIty Hall to remember George Floyd and other African Americans killed by police and demand change. June 4, 2020.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison listens to a question from, on right, Wesley Hawkins, of The Nolita Project, at a rally at CIty Hall to remember George Floyd and other African Americans killed by police and demand change. June 4, 2020. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

As known coronavirus cases spread across Maryland back in March, Baltimore Police began training for possible civil unrest in case food shortages or other problems gripped the region.

They had no way of knowing at the time that their training would be put to use for the ensuing protests and large-scale demonstrations against police brutality and racial injustice and for the recent calls to defund their own agency.

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The recent gatherings in Baltimore have been largely peaceful, and clashes between police and the public did not materialize as they did in so many other cities earlier this month, which Police Commissioner Michael Harrison attributed to lessons learned in 2015 and from his own experiences working for the New Orleans Police Department after Hurricane Katrina.

Though several officials, including Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, complimented law enforcement on its response to the recent protests, some activists have criticized the police department, saying officers used aggressive tactics during the recent demonstrations.

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In 2015, Baltimore’s response to the unrest following the death of Freddie Gray was also criticized when 235 people were arrested, 20 officers were injured, and nearly 300 businesses were damaged, with about a dozen burned. The police union said the department’s response was hindered by leadership that wanted to preserve image over officer safety. A union after-action report said commanders did not want police to be perceived as aggressors, and officers were not empowered to take action.

But Harrison said Baltimore’s experience became a guide for other agencies, helping him create new policies for responding to unrest when he was still in New Orleans. He said the Prince George’s County Police Department invited two of his officers to participate in a training expedition when the suburban agency was sent to Baltimore to respond to the unrest.

“They came back and wrote my entire civil disturbance policy, what they learned from being here," he said.

In 2016, before Harrison came to Baltimore, the police department also revised its policy, which warns against both an “over response” and “under response,” and outlines specific requirements for deployment. Before resorting to “mass arrests” it instructs officers to “isolate and remove specific individuals or groups of agitators whose purpose is to incite the crowd.” It also emphasizes planning, training and leadership before any major event.

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Protesters confront police in riot gear and a fight broke out among demonstrators.

When crowds swelled to more than 1,000 on June 1 — one of the largest protests — the participants remained calm.

But tensions later rose between a police line and protesters outside City Hall, when someone from the crowd threw fireworks, prompting police to clear the street, first giving warnings and then sending officers in riot gear to force crowds to leave.

Baltimore police commissioner Michael Harrison commends the many groups that help keep the protests peaceful.

Sefu Chikelu, a Baltimore resident, said officers began aggressively clearing protesters from the streets south of City Hall. He described seeing officers in full riot gear with armored vehicles, and said they moved in a formation to clear crowds, hitting some individuals with batons and forcing others in between cars.

Chikelu said the use of force was unnecessary and followed the department earlier in the day announcing that it was looking for bricks and other items that might be possibly planted by agitators to incite violence.

“I think they were out there out of sheer paranoia,” Chikelu said. “They need to know that paranoia gets people to hurt. I don’t think they should’ve been out there that night.”

David Hildebrand said his son was struck in the head by an officer with a baton because his son didn’t move away from officers quickly enough, and his son was later charged with assault and failure to obey an officer.

“He didn’t walk away fast enough, was yelled at, then swarmed by officers and hit in the head with a baton,” Hildebrand said in an email. Hildebrand declined to comment further, citing the pending case against his son.

A police spokeswoman declined to comment on the concerns expressed about the officers’ tactics.

The department said six people were charged that night, largely for failing to obey law enforcement orders. A handful of businesses were damaged, including broken windows.

A youth rides a wheelie alongside a Baltimore Police officer in front of protestors marching down Pennsylvania Avenue Saturday.
A youth rides a wheelie alongside a Baltimore Police officer in front of protestors marching down Pennsylvania Avenue Saturday. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Still, Harrison praised the relatively peaceful protests and his department’s response, especially compared to what took place in other cities.

“What I saw was a community who remembered what happened, both the police community and the residents of the city, who remembered what happened and were determined not to let it happen again.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.

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