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Transit police union criticizes response to Baltimore riots

The union representing state transit police in Baltimore says commanders and agency administrators made "detrimental and disturbing" decisions that endangered officers during April's riots — adding another layer of criticism to the response by law enforcement leaders.

In a letter, AFSCME Local 1859 President Jerome Damon called on the Maryland Transit Administration to investigate the agency's handling of the April 27 unrest, noting that four officers dispatched without protective gear to a West Baltimore subway station had to be rescued by an armored vehicle after crowds set two MTA police vehicles and the nearby CVS pharmacy ablaze.

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Archer Blackwell, another union representative, said Thursday that the union's complaints, including a lack of protective gear, have largely gone unaddressed. More equipment arrived after the riots, but officers still have not been trained to use it, he said.

The union concerns come to light weeks after the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, which represents the city's rank-and-file officers, made similar complaints about officer safety and the lack of protective gear in its scathing review.

The concerns — which MTA officials say are being addressed in various ways, including training and the creation of an MTA Police Mobile Field Force Team — also add to a growing list of unanswered questions about city and state officials' handling of the unrest.

Through new interviews, as well as radio transmissions, emails and video obtained by The Baltimore Sun through the Maryland Public Information Act, a clearer picture of the events is emerging.

Recently released video shows crowds breaching and looting stores, destroying police vehicles and setting fires in West Baltimore as police remained on the fringes of the area and did not move in for nearly 90 minutes, until the crowd had largely dispersed. Officers have complained that police leaders told them not to confront rioters, allowing more first responders to be injured and property to be damaged. Audio recordings reveal officers were upset by orders to "hold the line," even when they felt, as one officer put it, that they were "getting creamed."

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and other officials have defended the nonengagement strategy, saying it was needed to protect officers and citizens as they prioritized life over property. They say they are addressing these issues as quickly as possible to make improvements ahead of any additional unrest in coming months.

In the May 13 letter to MTA Administrator Paul Comfort, Damon wrote, "The union has several outstanding issues of great concern that need your immediate attention. I am hopeful that you will afford us an audience at your earliest convenience to discuss these very important issues."

Comfort, who started as administrator May 11, responded in his own letter about two weeks later. He defended the MTA's response and said the agency's goal of mitigating the unrest by protecting "life and property" was "a success."

"No patrons or civilian employees were injured. Other than the two vehicles we lost during the civil disturbance, there was only minimal damage done to MTA property, and thankfully only one of our police officers incurred an injury, which was non-life-threatening," Comfort wrote. "I attribute this success to extensive preplanning by the MTA Police, our mutual aid agreements with other agencies as well as the execution and follow through of our command staff and others."

The MTA Police has 156 sworn officers, including commanders, and nearly all were deployed during the unrest — working 12-hour shifts with no days off, the MTA said.

The April 27 unrest came hours after the funeral for 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who died after sustaining a severe spinal cord injury while in police custody. His death triggered days of protest marches that morphed into violence and looting.

Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby subsequently brought charges against six Baltimore police officers involved in Gray's arrest and his transport in a police van, where he was injured. The officers, who have pleaded not guilty, are scheduled to go to trial in October.

City officials said they see the potential for more unrest depending on the outcome of those criminal cases, and are working to complete an "after-action report" on what went right and wrong in April. That would allow them to make needed operational changes, they said.

"The mayor and the administration clearly acknowledge that there were mistakes made and that we were not prepared on a number of fronts — particularly when it comes to coordination and the equipment of our officers — for the challenges that we faced during the unrest," said Kevin Harris, a mayoral spokesman. He added that the mayor called for the report quickly because "she knew we were not out of the woods."

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Harris said other cities such as Ferguson, Mo., have seen unrest after decisions cleared officers involved in the deaths of young black men, and Rawlings-Blake's administration is preparing for that possibility in Baltimore.

"Part of the entire after-action review process is not just looking at what needs to be corrected from the city's perspective, but also how we can enhance the way we coordinate with other agencies and jurisdictions," he said. "This issue with the MTA is something that would fall under that category."

In a statement Friday, Comfort said one of his first priorities upon taking the MTA administrator job was to review a report on "operations and police response during the civil unrest" from the MTA's executive staff and MTA Police Chief John Gavrilis. He has since reviewed police leadership during the unrest and asked commanders to develop a plan for any future unrest, Comfort said.

His department has made other changes, such as issuing helmets to every officer and purchasing 50 shields "for use when needed," while training all officers on using the equipment and "on responding to protests and civil disturbances," the statement said. It also purchased "20 large pepper spray foggers," bringing the total for the department to 30; approved the hiring of 10 additional officers; and began developing the Mobile Field Force Team, which will "equip each office with total personal protective gear."

Comfort did not specify when officers were given the new equipment.

In his letter, Comfort said the decision to send the four officers to the Penn-North subway station amid the unrest "was not made lightly" but spoke directly to the mission of MTA Police. Officers were able to obtain the helmets and shields that they lacked at the start of the unrest "in short order," he said.

An email between MTA Police officials and Baltimore Police Department officials shows that at least 10 MTA officers at Mondawmin Mall still needed helmets on April 29. That was two days after the worst of the unrest and the first day students returned to school, as National Guard soldiers showed up at Mondawmin in large numbers.

Blackwell, of the MTA officers' union, welcomed any additional attention Comfort and city officials can bring to the issue of officer preparedness, but said Comfort's letter was not received warmly by MTA officers or union officials.

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"That didn't sit well, because a lot of them felt that they were sent out ill-prepared and certainly nobody — at least the top people — gave a thought to the fact that they were not prepared," Blackwell said.

He said MTA officers now need training on the new protective equipment.

"What needs to be done now is to make sure that the officers know how to use this stuff in case something happens again," Blackwell said. "How do you use it, when should you use it, and where do you keep it to make sure you have quick access to it in case something happens?"

Other hurdles likely remain to the city reaching full preparedness as well, officials conceded — but the nature of those hurdles is difficult to determine.

The newly released video of the area where the CVS burned and the police radio tapes from the peak of the unrest shined more light on how the situation escalated and how police responded. Still, similar recordings from Mondawmin — where the unrest broke out — remain unavailable, and Rawlings-Blake's administration has released few internal documents about the riot response.

Rawlings-Blake said this week that she still doesn't know who canceled buses meant to transport students from the Mondawmin station after schools let out. Some in the city, including teachers, have questioned whether that decision intensified the situation by trapping students around the mall.

Harris said Rawlings-Blake "does think that it's unacceptable to not know the answer to that question, which is why she has continued to order that her administration continue with an all hands on deck approach to completing the after-action process so we can find out the answers."

He said the administration does not believe that anyone is "stonewalling in providing an answer," but there is "a lot of conflicting information that we need to sort through to find out where that request came from and to ensure the information sharing is more streamlined in the future."

Some outside observers familiar with city responses to the unrest said there are several issues that should be addressed.

Jason Fritz, an Iraq War veteran and a researcher and consultant who has studied policing in conflict zones, read the FOP's report and watched surveillance footage of Pennsylvania and North avenues, and believes that police did not have enough personnel to effectively respond to the situation.

"They have some room for improvement on how to more effectively control crowds, but the philosophy of their approach was right," Fritz said. "It appears to me that the commissioner and mayor took some lessons learned from Ferguson, that when police are the fundamental cause of the unrest, an overwhelming response will cause things to get worse instead of get better."

Complaints about a lack of equipment for officers, however, illustrate a "huge failure," he said, adding that officers should be better equipped and trained to use that equipment as a unit. Police should consider acquiring "long-range tools" such as acoustic devices that can cause crowds to scatter, he said.

Paul Wertheimer, a crowd control expert who runs Los Angeles-based Crowd Management Strategies, said police were right to consider how officers would be perceived by residents.

Riot gear "gives off a certain, more aggressive image. It's going to change the mood of the crowd, because it's aggressive," he said. But Wertheimer said the equipment must be handy if conditions worsen.

"If it escalates, you can escalate," he said. "It doesn't mean leave your Tasers and your batons and your tear gas at home. It just means you don't lead with it."

Wertheimer also agreed with Fritz that police weren't in a position to move in and make arrests.

"Is it important to arrest people? Under circumstances, absolutely, if it can be done effectively," Wertheimer said. "When you have to wade into a crowd to get one person, it's usually not practical or worth it. It's very dangerous."

Added Fritz: "You can't round up an entire city."

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.

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