Md. National Guard reviewing, passing along lessons from Baltimore riot deployment

How might the Maryland National Guard's mission in Baltimore be a lesson for leaders elsewhere?

The leaders of the Maryland National Guard began updating plans to respond to a civil disturbance before Michael Brown was shot last summer by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

Their preparations paid off in April, when Gov. Larry Hogan ordered more than 3,000 soldiers and airmen into the streets of Baltimore to help calm a city in flames over the death of Freddie Gray — the Maryland Guard's first such deployment in 47 years.

Now, after supporting police and providing security without significant injuries or incidents, Maryland Guard leaders are fielding questions from their counterparts around the country, who are bracing for the possibility of disturbances in their states.

"It could really happen anywhere," said Maj. Gen. Linda Singh, the commander of the Maryland National Guard. "It's not that these are bad places or anything. It only takes one issue that can really get people upset and for that to spiral."

Singh has briefed the commanders of the other 53 state and territorial guards on Operation Baltimore Rally. Maryland Guard leaders, meanwhile, are reviewing the deployment in preparation for the possibility of similar missions in the future.

The last time the Maryland Guard had been called to calm Baltimore was 1968, when the city erupted after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But leaders had begun to prepare for a civil disturbance early last year as part of a larger effort to develop contingency plans for a range of possible emergencies.

Early work on CONPLAN MD003: Civil Disturbance included a tabletop exercise, during which leaders discussed how the Maryland Guard would respond to hypothetical unrest.

"It was not [a mission] that you think about all the time," Singh said.

Then the shooting of Brown last August triggered demonstrations and ultimately riots in Ferguson, and the Missouri National Guard was called to respond. Protests spread to Baltimore, and the idea of a Maryland Guard deployment to calm a civil disturbance become less hypothetical.

Singh, who was commander of the Maryland Army National Guard at the time, pushed planners to speed their work. In the fall, Maryland Guard members drilled with Baltimore police and state officials at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

That drill prompted the police to rewrite their own plans, Singh said in her presentation last month to the leaders of the other state and territorial guards. A Baltimore police spokesman did not respond to questions about the exercise.

Gray died April 19, a Sunday, a week after suffering a severe spinal injury in police custody. In the days that followed, protests and demonstrations grew, and Singh began receiving updates.

That Friday, she spoke with Baltimore police leaders about how the Maryland Guard might be used if demonstrations turned violent. The following day, protesters clashed with police outside Oriole Park at Camden Yards, and Singh got word to her troops: "Have your bags packed and be prepared."

Gray was buried on Monday, April 27, and the city broke out in riots, looting and arson. Hogan deployed the Maryland Guard that night.

Maryland Guard leaders had reviewed the experience of their counterparts in Missouri. The Missouri Guard drew criticism after CNN publicized documents in which it referred to demonstrators as "enemy forces" and spoke of a need for a "battle rhythm."

A spokesman for the Missouri Guard stressed that the phrase "enemy forces" appeared only in "a handful of early drafts" and was removed before final orders were issued. But the language seemed to fit a growing narrative about the militarization of the response to the demonstration.

Singh was sympathetic.

"It's very easy for us to slip into what's normal language for us that doesn't translate to the outside community," she said. She reminded her troops: "Be cognizant of your audience and who you're trying to get the message across to."

It worked. On the first full day of the deployment, Capt. Christian Callender told a Baltimore Sun reporter that the city was not a war zone.

"These are protesters, not insurgents," he said. "These are our fellow Baltimoreans. We're here to protect them, not to hurt them."

State Sen. Catherine E. Pugh said the troops helped to calm the city. She said they were respectful in their interactions with the public.

"I remember looking over on Penn and North at a group of National Guard folk," the Baltimore Democrat said. "Some young people were out — very young people — and they were engaged in conversation."

There were few conflicts between troops and protesters. Documents released through a Public Information Act request include a report of five teenagers throwing rocks at a Guard vehicle. Eleven troops were treated for minor injuries or illness.

Troops remained on the streets for a week. Police and the Guard were preparing a massive show of force when police turned over results of their investigation into Gray's death to prosecutors. But there was no further violence. On May 1, State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby announced charges against six officers involved in Gray's arrest, and demonstrations became celebrations. By the end of the weekend, troops were withdrawing.

Maj. Nicole Ashcroft, the public affairs officer for the Ohio National Guard, contacted the Maryland Guard as she updated her own plans for dealing with a crisis.

"They responded quickly, they were responding to the media, they were providing accurate information, even down to their social media," Ashcroft said. "We like to not have to reinvent the wheel, so we reach out to our peers."

With the mission over, commanders in Maryland began reviewing the deployment and planning for the next.

"I am very satisfied with the way things turned out," Singh said. "But that doesn't mean we aren't going to do some things differently."

Officials are looking ahead to the trials of the six officers, scheduled to start in October, and the possibility of more violence.

"We are always going to be prepared," Singh said. "But I pray literally every single day that we don't have a repeat."

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