Four years after more than 60 businesses sued Baltimore over what they called its botched response to unrest following the death of Freddie Gray, the city has filed a response casting its effort “a success” that looks even better compared with what has taken place in other cities.
The 273-page filing, backed by depositions of key city officials at the time, emails and internal documents, portrays the city in a positive light and provides fresh information about events leading up to the unrest, including the elusive “purge” flyer, which warned of violence among youth.
The filing also alleges that Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and his administration ignored city pleas for outside police officers and National Guard members to bolster the city ranks, undercutting Hogan’s repeated assertions in public and in his own book on the incident. In all, the documents and arguments by city attorneys provide a new slant on a timeline and narrative of an event that has shaped Baltimore and spawned countless reviews of the city’s response.
“Despite being under-equipped and understaffed as a result of the State and other jurisdictions refusing its requests for assistance in the days leading up to the funeral, BPD managed to suppress the unrest in approximately twelve hours, with no loss of civilian or officer life,” wrote city attorneys, comparing the day favorably with “the violence that has erupted nationwide both before (Ferguson) and after (following the 2020 death of George Floyd), and even the last time Baltimore experienced rioting in 1968.”
The city’s rosy take contrasts sharply not only with Hogan’s, but a range of critics who say the city was either unprepared and stood down — including the Fraternal Order of Police — or, as some residents and activists have asserted, took actions that provoked the uprising.
The lawsuit was brought in 2017 by dozens of mostly small-business owners who said their stores were burned or vandalized, and who were attacked and suffered injuries. Among those suing are the owners of the Fireside North Liquors on West North Avenue. One of the store’s owners was beaten and robbed, and another was hurt jumping to escape the blaze.
“Despite all the warning signs the city and BCPD failed to take reasonable steps to address the risk of the riots that would occur on April 27, 2015,” the business owners’ complaint said. “Even in locations where BCPD officers were present, business owners helplessly watched their stores being looted and destroyed as BCPD officers also simply watched and/or turned away, and let the destruction of property continue.”
As the sixth anniversary of Gray’s death and the uprising approaches, new information continues to trickle out. Last year, transportation officials finally released surveillance video from the Mondawmin Mall transit hub where youth and police clashed.
Perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of the city’s lawsuit response includes previously unreleased intelligence related to the “purge” memo. Last year, The Sun obtained a memo with the same information, and the city police and schools repeatedly denied that it even existed.
The documents suggest for the first time that police early on identified a possible source of the flyer that preceded the unrest on the day of Gray’s funeral but whose origins have never been publicly accounted for.
Included in the filing is an email chain between top commanders in the city police and schools police force regarding the “purge” meme, flagged by then-city police intelligence analyst Joseph Orenstein at noon Sunday, April 26 — the day before the unrest. The flyer referred to a movie called “The Purge,” where the plot involves a period of lawlessness, and called for people to start at Mondawmin Mall at 3 pm. Monday and make their way to the Inner Harbor.
Orenstein wrote that a “confidential source” had supplied the name of the person who posted it — a 15-year-old from West Baltimore.
“[Schools police] Major [Akil] Hamm and I are willing to send representatives from both shops to this juveniles home to speak with the parents, or someone from our Intel Unit, etc,” Maj. Kevin A. Jones wrote in an email on April 26 and sent to other top commanders.
There is no indication in the records of whether police pursued the information further.
The city’s filing, part of its attempt to have the entire lawsuit dismissed, leaves unanswered the question of whether police went to the teen’s home, met with the parents or pursued the information further.
The Sun last year obtained a copy of an intelligence memo detailing the same information, and sought to corroborate its authenticity. But even after being provided with a report number, police and schools officials said that they had no such information in their records. Friday’s filing by the city shows that was untrue.
The teen, now 21, has since been sentenced to 20 years in prison related to an unrelated string of crimes committed years later, and could not be reached for comment. Reached Sunday night, his mother said she had no knowledge of her son either creating the meme or being visited by police about it.
The flyer put officials on alert, with police sending units to Mondawmin Mall, while businesses and other institutions shut down early that day. But officials had never revealed where it came from or whether it actually had traction among city youth.
City lawyers say the flyer was vague, but they didn’t brush it off, either.
“Having received a single piece of vague intelligence the day before the funeral — a flyer directed at City schoolchildren that said that they were going to ‘purge’ at Mondawmin Mall — the Baltimore police nonetheless prepared for a possible large incident by staging platoons at and near the shopping center,” attorneys wrote in a motion for summary judgment. “The resulting melee apparently inspired individuals throughout the City to engage in opportunistic looting, violence, and damage.”
The city’s filing Friday also alleged that surrounding municipalities and the state ignored requests for help.
Baltimore police in the days leading up to the riot “begged people to come assist, and they did not,” former Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said under oath. Batts said the BPD reached out to the colonel in charge of the Maryland State Police to ask him to furnish 5,000 officers to aid the city.
“The commissioner noted that in order to get these bodies, the colonel had the ability to ask Governor Hogan to activate the National Guard,” Baltimore attorneys say in the filing.
“[S]tate police did not respond. They did not give us the resources we were asking for,” Batts testified in his deposition. “Nor did they [try] to give us the numbers we asked for. They were also informed that they could have ... brought the National Guard online ... They did not bring the National Guard online.”
That contrasts with Hogan’s account from his book, “Still Standing: Surviving Cancer, Riots, a Global Pandemic, and the Toxic Politics That Divide America,” which was released last summer.
Hogan painted the city as downplaying the prospect of a riot and spurning state help. Hogan said Rawlings-Blake told him she didn’t think anything was going to happen, and that city police told state police: “We don’t have any issues.”
“The unmistakable message, delivered to me directly and through the media, was that the city had everything under control,” Hogan wrote in the book.
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Hogan spokesman Mike Ricci said Monday that the governor’s account is “sound,” and affirmed by a deposition in the riot lawsuit by his adviser Keiffer Mitchell.
“The question endures to this day: Where was the mayor?” Ricci said, referring to a period that Hogan said his team was unable to get in contact with Rawlings-Blake.
Other former city officials also remembered asking for help and being spurned, according to the lawsuit filing. City attorneys said Rawlings-Blake’s chief of staff Kaliope Parthemos contacted her counterpart in the governor’s office after the state was “reluctant to provide requested resources,” and that the city’s emergency manager Robert Maloney submitted a request for 600 officers to the state emergency management department.
Batts said that when he told Rawlings-Blake that he believed she should declare a state of emergency, he said she “jumped on it.”
Hogan wrote that he had trouble reaching Rawlings-Blake, who said she needed more time and reluctantly agreed to Hogan’s insistence that she declare a state of emergency.
The city said that a militarized police response in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 led to days of unrest, and said unrest across the country after George Floyd’s death lasted for weeks and months.
“Despite having a population of approximately 200,000 fewer people than Baltimore, the Minneapolis unrest saw damage to 1,500 businesses, compared to 300 in the Gray unrest,” city attorneys wrote.