City leaders questioned Thursday why the Baltimore Police Department issued a public warning, on the morning of Freddie Gray's funeral, that gang members had teamed up to "take out" police officers.
Police announced on April 27 a "credible threat" that the Bloods, Crips and Black Guerrilla Family had joined together up to target officers, but other law enforcement agencies concluded within hours that they couldn't verify the claim, according to interviews and documents obtained by The Baltimore Sun.
"I knew all along it was a bunch of baloney," City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said. "They owe the council and the public an explanation for why they put this false information out there."
The police warning was circulated in a news release at 11:27 a.m. on the day of Gray's funeral, two days after protests over his death turned violent.
Also that day, police were assessing rumors of teenagers planning an after-school "purge" — a reference to widespread violence as depicted in a movie of that name. Within hours, the city descended into a night of rioting and looting.
Gray, 25, died April 19 after suffering an injury to his neck and spine while riding handcuffed in a police van. Six police officers have been charged in connection with his arrest and death; all have pleaded not guilty.
State Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said the claim that officers were being targeted by gang members heightened the tension that morning.
"When that news was released, apprehension of the moment increased," Ferguson said.
Police defended their decision to spread word of the threat, arguing that it was "imminent and consistent with previous threats."
The department acknowledged that the threat was later determined to be "non-credible" but said other threats continued to be received as the unrest went on.
"This threat came less than 48 hours after officers were attacked by protestors and a short time before more attacks would take place," police spokesman Capt. Eric Kowalczyk said in a statement. "Due to the exigency of the circumstances, the credibility of the threat at the time it was received, extraordinary action was taken.
"The department acted out of an abundance of caution rather than see an officer injured or killed and would do so again."
City Councilman Brandon Scott wrote an email Thursday to police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts and other top leaders in the department, saying that if reports that the FBI discredited the claim were true, "it is extremely unacceptable and put the lives of citizens, officers and others in danger."
"Falsifying a threat of this magnitude during a highly tense time should result in the strongest penalty possible," Scott wrote. "If we are going to repair our city, this kind of behavior cannot be tolerated."
Shayne Buchwald, an FBI spokeswoman, said Thursday that agents interviewed their gang sources at the request of Baltimore police and were unable to corroborate the threat.
Neighboring Baltimore County police also told their officers that day that the threat was "uncorroborated," according to internal police emails obtained this week by The Sun under the Maryland Public Information Act.
In an email to all sworn officers sent at 4:12 p.m. April 27, a lieutenant wrote that the city "identifies very nonspecific information about a retaliatory threat towards Law Enforcement after today's funeral for Freddy Gray."
"Circumstances regarding the source of information and its veracity are still being evaluated," Lt. Matthew Gorman wrote. "Baltimore County Intel is communicating with our counterparts in Baltimore City and at this time the below/attached information is uncorroborated. As we work to confirm or dispel the alleged threat please use caution and forward any related information to the Intelligence Unit."
At the time, amid growing protests in the city over Gray's death, Batts had asked surrounding law enforcement agencies for help in policing the city.
Cpl. John Wachter, a spokesman for county police, said in an interview that the department was never able to corroborate the claim.
Vice News reported this week that documents released by the Department of Homeland Security showed that the FBI had interviewed the Baltimore police's source and found that the threat was not credible.
Federal investigators also moved quickly to assess the threat, according to the documents released to Vice News, a New York-based news outlet. An official at the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center, a clearinghouse for police information, wrote at 1:38 p.m. that day that the meaning of "credible" in the Baltimore police response was not clear.
It more likely meant that gangs could plausibly attack an officer rather than that the police had specific information, the official wrote. In an email at 5:16 p.m., another official wrote that the FBI officer in Baltimore had interviewed the city Police Department's source and determined the "threat to be non-credible."
The day after the rioting, people who said they were members of gangs stood with members of the City Council to denounce the violence. At the meeting, Young dismissed the Baltimore police's claim as "false."
City Councilman Nick Mosby called the Police Department's warning about the threat "problematic at best."
"When you put out incendiary statements like that, and you don't have credible information, that's a problem," Mosby said. "The lack of communication, and communication that was not factual, are really the variables of a disaster."
Mosby said he believed the warning played on the public's fears and said "police need to come out and communicate why they thought it was a credible threat."
"Folks in my area, as soon as it came out, they didn't believe it one bit," he said. "It's unfortunate to find it wasn't credible."