For five-and-a-half years, the Maryland Transit Administration has refused to let the public see surveillance camera video depicting the start of the 2015 unrest following the death of Freddie Gray. This fall, the agency relented, granting The Baltimore Sun exclusive access to scenes captured by surveillance cameras throughout the Mondawmin Mall transit hub.
The MTA would only allow the tapes to be viewed and not copied. The Sun also visited the station and conducted interviews. The review determined the footage is as notable as much for what is not depicted as what is shown:
- The agency revealed, for the first time, that it does not have footage from seven of the 12 cameras during the crucial period of 2:30 to 4 p.m.
- MTA could not explain why the recording servers weren’t working, despite what it said were repeated attempts to find emails, alerts or information technology logs from that time that would explain the lapse.
- There were no disturbances at the transit station itself before it was shut down.
- The footage largely matches previous accounts and transcripts given by MTA.
- For years, officials have blocked the release of footage, citing security concerns. However, all the source cameras for the tape are in plain view to anyone walking through the station.
- Top agency officials said that their post-disturbance investigation relied far more heavily on local media footage of the events than on their own security cameras.
In the security video, MTA police can be seen clearing people from the station within a minute of a group of youth running through it, at a time when officials say looting and rock-throwing was occurring on the periphery. That activity cannot be observed in view of the cameras, though hundreds of youth can be seen congregating away from the station.
A spokeswoman for the agency said all information on the video reviewed by The Sun was the actual footage reviewed by investigators at the time, and matches previous timelines and transcripts released by the agency in the previous five years.
Since 2015, the incident has been the subject of dueling narratives: that teens intent on carrying out a “purge” that was allegedly advertised on social media flooded the transit station and attacked police; or that students who use the transit hub to get home were stranded and provoked by police when the station was shut down preemptively.
Neither police nor transportation officials have ever said who ordered the shutdown, nor has it been substantiated whether the “purge” meme was widely shared or had traction among youth. Elected leaders showed no interest in getting to the bottom of either question.
The tapes do nothing to answer the lingering question of who ordered the station closed in the first place.
Revelations about the gap in camera coverage, combined with the state’s long refusal to release the footage, are unlikely to end the controversy over what happened outside the station on April 27, 2015.
Whatever the problems with the cameras in the first hour were resolved by 4 p.m., when all 12 cameras recorded the events. Although what went on after that hour is already known.
Erin Henson, a spokeswoman for the MTA, said the seven cameras were on a separate server, but couldn’t say why there was only footage starting at 4 p.m.
“I tried to find IT records, and they weren’t there. I went through our email system searching for any kind of alert and there wasn’t any,” Henson said. She added that she spoke to a top police official and asked if he remembered; she said he did not.
The footage from the five working cameras starting at 2:30 p.m. depicts a typical day at the outdoor station, with people of all ages shuffling to different bus stops, arriving from or getting on underground subway trains, or just passing through.
Tensions had been growing for weeks over Gray’s death April 19, with a series of protests, including one downtown that escalated into clashes on Saturday April 25. Gray’s funeral was held the morning of April 27.
City, police and school officials had been on alert about the possibility of a youth disruption at the mall, and police were assembled in the parking lot near the transit station in anticipation. The video begins with those officers out of view of the station’s cameras.
At around 2:47 p.m., MTA officers at the station watch with interest as a large group of students walk through the mall parking lot, south of the transit station. As many as 200 or more people head toward an area where police were arriving in vans.
At 2:55 p.m., a smaller group of youth run through the station, with five MTA officers giving chase. The MTA has said previously that around that time rocks were thrown at BPD officers in riot gear, who moved across the bus loop, effectively closing it down. There is no clear vantage point confirming that account on the camera footage.
Around that time, a bus arrives and switches its display to “Not in service,” turning away a group of adults waiting to board. There are no disruptive youth in view at the station.
Next, a group of MTA officers walks through the station around 2:56 p.m., with one waving her hand as if telling people to clear out — which is what happens next, as the station is virtually empty two minutes later.
At the same time, city officers in riot gear can be seen assembling at the western edge of the station, and another wave of youth run through the station.
One camera pans to Reisterstown Road, showing more than 100 young people congregating in the median and the parking lot of a Midas service station. People were still coming up the escalator at 3 p.m., but MTA officers close the station by shutting a gate one minute later.
More than 5,000 students transfer at the Mondawmin hub every day. Though the youth that day hadn’t been queued up in bus lines, shutting down the station eliminated that as an option. MTA officials note that they had made additional buses available three blocks away at Druid Hill Park in an attempt to keep people from converging on the station, and alerted school officials so that the information could be relayed to students.
“They were clearly not trying to catch transit,” Henson, the MTA spokeswoman, said, explaining that buses were still running until 3 p.m. if that was the intent.
A Baltimore Police “bearcat” tactical vehicle drives up Reisterstown Road, causing people to scatter, regrouping when the vehicle leaves.
The first observable instance of someone throwing an object at police comes around 3:06. An MTA officer can be seen ducking as an object sails by him, and a group of officers briefly takes cover inside a kiosk. Around the same time, in a different area, a television cameraman is swarmed by youth and pulled to the ground and kicked, the video shows.
Several members of the media were on scene by this time, and what happened next was broadcast from helicopters, on-the-ground cameras and cellphone videos. The group lingered and clashed with police, eventually moving south through neighborhoods. It wasn’t until 4:25 p.m. that they moved into the intersection of Pennsylvania and North avenues, where a CVS and police vehicles were set on fire.
In the months after the unrest, officials pointed fingers at each other regarding who shut down the station. The MTA said it came at the request of city police, who referred questions to the MTA. Then-Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said the call could have come from a commander in the field, though police never identified such a commander despite participating in multiple “after-action” reviews of the day’s events.
One of those after-action reviews, by Johns Hopkins University and based on police radio communications, outlined violence taking place near the transit station but out of the view of its security cameras. At 2:45 p.m., a schools police officer said students were throwing rocks and bricks south of the station, and that a group was looting a 7-Eleven store on Liberty Heights Avenue, northwest of the station, at 2:50 p.m. That is also out of view of the Mondawmin cameras.
“Let’s start corralling these kids, and let’s start making arrests,” one officer said at 2:50 p.m.
Then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the decision to close the station was the right call.
“Let’s say they’re open: What happens if that melee goes onto the subway tracks? What happens if somebody fell on the subway tracks? It was just a bad, bad situation,” she said in July 2015.
The cameras for which footage was available are all on the east end of the transit station, while the other seven cameras, which have footage available after 4 p.m., are along the bus loops.
Henson said that the agency never revealed that some cameras weren’t recording before now because officials were focused on what information they had, and not what they did not.