Within weeks of the riots that ripped through Baltimore four years ago, the Maryland Transit Administration’s deputy police chief had pulled hours of dispatch records and compiled an email for colleagues — “RE: Mondawmin” — that outlined the earliest stages of the unrest in minute-by-minute detail.
Throughout the timeline, which has not been published before now, Lt. Col. Fred Damron Jr. interspersed raw, emotionless radio chatter with his own commentary — recasting details through a law enforcement lens and in light of the harrowing realities he believed they foreshadowed.
“At this point,” he wrote after three terse dispatches about kids throwing rocks, “it is clear and evident that this is an orchestrated attack as most of the rioters have backpacks on which contain bricks and other objects that are being thrown at police officers.”
Damron, whose perspective conflicts with what some community members have said for years, then outlined a rapid series of events — including a Baltimore police skirmish line forming through the middle of the busy Mondawmin bus loop, and larger and larger numbers of youths arriving on the metro line below. His memo suggests that the shuttering of those transit services just as many high school students were being dismissed from school was unavoidable and necessary.
“Officers are in distress calling for additional assistance due to the onslaught of the attack,” Damron wrote.
The email was one of a handful of MTA records related to the April 2015 unrest that The Baltimore Sun obtained from the MTA this week. The agency continues to deny access to its surveillance footage from that day, as it has for years. Combined, the records — which also include a written account of what the withheld footage purportedly shows — provide new insights into one of the most controversial and consequential moments in modern Maryland history.
They also revive old questions.
The clashes at Mondawmin — on April 27, 2015, the day of 25-year-old Freddie Gray’s funeral — marked a turning point in the trajectory of Baltimore, which suffered tens of millions of dollars in damage and untold communal trauma from the fires and looting that followed. The riots brought international attention to the city.
Still, the origins of the clashes, spurred by frustration over Gray’s death from injuries suffered in police custody and more systemic police abuses over decades, have remained clouded.
Law enforcement officials have long maintained that their arrival at the busy transit hub that day — in force and in riot gear — was in good faith, part of an effort to protect property and lives in light of flyers circulating that morning calling for a so-called “purge” by the city’s frustrated youth.
Teachers and students at nearby Frederick Douglass High School, meanwhile, have argued that students were basically corralled into and then trapped within the conflict by police and transit officials who had no appreciation that diverting buses and closing the metro line at Mondawmin would leave many kids stranded.
The new documents, paired with new interviews with police, schools officials and others who were in Mondawmin that day, suggest that the cops and the kids could both be right.
They don’t provide definitive answers to some of the largest questions — such as who, specifically, shut down transit — but they do paint a fuller picture of what was occurring at the time.
That morning, kids at Douglass were on edge — almost frenetic, multiple teachers said. They were sharing memes and flyers on their phones, from Facebook and Instagram, talking about a “purge” at Mondawmin around the time of dismissal. The term is a reference to a movie by the same name, in which crime is legal for a day.
Some were anxious, others intrigued: Would it really happen? Right outside their school?
“You could tell as soon as the kids came into the school that morning, it was different,” said Ebony McKiver, 38, who at the time was a government teacher at Douglass with a freshman son.
By early afternoon, many in the school had left already, some picked up by nervous parents who’d seen the flyers. The school system has said about 75 students walked out of the school about 3 p.m., an hour before dismissal, but teachers suggest that number was far smaller.
By then, the situation outside already was spiraling out of control, the records show.
Damron, in his recounting, wrote that MTA Police had been alerted to the “purge” memes by school police and had started coordinating a response, and “requesting assistance” from the Baltimore Police Department, earlier in the day. They had asked Schools Police Maj. Akil Hamm — now the schools police chief — about 1:30 p.m. to stagger school dismissal times that afternoon, another timeline released in May 2015 shows, but that request was denied.
Hamm said it was denied by then-schools CEO Gregory Thornton, who concluded that there was too little notice.
"We basically said: We can't turn it in 40 minutes," Thornton told The Sun in the months after. "We can't get kids ready to go home, notify parents, and ensure their transition home.”
By 2:45 p.m., police from the city, the MTA and the schools already were gathered at the Mondawmin metro station for a roll call, with the Baltimore police officers in riot gear.
The first MTA dispatch about a rock being thrown came a minute later, at 2:46 p.m., according to Damron’s email. Within 10 minutes, Baltimore police had formed a skirmish line across the bus loop, blocking access to buses, even as more teenagers arrived by metro to “join in the unrest,” Damron wrote.
At 3 p.m., a dispatch noted that the metro station was being shut down, which Damron attributed to the growing number of people “participating in the riot” and “communication with commanders on the scene.”
It was around this time that schools officials have said the group from Douglass left the building.
McKiver said some of them wanted to check out what was going on. Others were just trying to get home. All of them, she said, walked into chaos and couldn’t get out.
“All we could do was just watch,” she said of the Douglass teachers, standing outside their building.
Hamm remembers students shouting, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” and other protest chants. It wasn’t just Douglass kids, he said, but students pouring in from “all over the place.”
McKiver’s son, Kahmal Cooper-Flight, now a 19-year-old freshman at University of Maryland Eastern Shore, briefly left the school with some friends before returning to go home with his mother. He says he felt anxious, and his friends felt stuck. There was pepper spray in the air, he recalled, and riot shields all around.
“It was just a very unreal thing to be in the middle of,” he said.
For another half-hour after the metro’s gates were closed, MTA officials tried to get some students and other patrons onto departing trains, Damron wrote, while attempting to block anyone already on the trains from getting off at Mondawmin. Some buses were still stopping at a nearby intersection.
But as the clashes intensified, even those options were halted.
At 3:21 p.m., according to another MTA timeline released in 2015, a Baltimore police decision to close the intersection of Reisterstown Road and Liberty Heights Avenue “forces all bus traffic to divert” from the area. At 3:28 p.m., Baltimore police commanders made an official request for “all buses to stop dropping off in and around the area of Mondawmin ASAP, per the representative at the watch center,” the timeline says.
At the conclusion of his own timeline, Damron wrote that he hoped his analysis “shines some light on the decision making process that was on-going” throughout the early hours of the unrest.
“The decisions to close stations, bus service, light rail service and divert service from the areas of concern were not made in a vacuum,” he wrote. “Those decisions were made with the best interest of public safety in mind by commanders on the scene and/or in their respective command centers.
“What should be clearly evident is that no part of the transit system was closed or diverted in any fashion until after the attack began by the rioters.”
Neither Damron nor other MTA officials were made available for an interview in recent days. But in a statement, MTA Police Chief John Gavrilis backed Damron’s assessment, saying that “the riots were underway with more rioters arriving by Metro before any transit services were shut down.”
He said it was the Baltimore police decision to form a skirmish line across the bus loop that forced the initial diversion of buses. He said MTA police officers “put their own lives on the line over and over again” to get students onto the metro and onto buses at a stop farther from the mall — which the agency had told schools police to direct students toward. And he said it was “only after all the students and residents were safely on transit” that the MTA “shut down the final transit services,” again at the request of Baltimore police.
He said there was “no confusion” among law enforcement about those events, as the various agencies that responded were in constant communication at the time.
MTA Administrator Kevin Quinn said in his own statement that the MTA’s communication with customers has improved greatly in the past five years through social media, a new service alert system and a bus tracking app — all of which would be useful in the event unrest were to occur again.
Others who had some hand in the response at Mondawmin four years ago said in recent interviews that their perceptions of that day have evolved over time, and that, hindsight being 20/20, they would have done things differently.
Hamm said he would have had “more administrators, more school staff out there who knew the kids,” because “kids are less likely to act out when someone who they respect and know can call them out on it.”
Kevin Davis, who was a deputy commissioner in the Baltimore Police Department at the time and saw much at Mondawmin unfold from the department’s Foxtrot helicopter, said there were clear communication breakdowns between agencies that day.
He thought the Police Department should have better anticipated the potential for unrest and better coordinated with MTA and schools police to prevent large crowds of students and other young people from arriving at Mondawmin in the first place. Instead, he said, otherwise good kids were influenced by others, got caught up in “group think” and ended up throwing rocks.
“We should have had a coordinated effort with the schools to either have kids shelter in place, or provide alternative transportation for those kids so they didn’t walk out into that gauntlet,” said Davis, who was named police commissioner three months after the unrest and served in that role until being fired in 2018, amid rising violent crime in the city.
Davis said the communication failures among agencies were due in part to command being splintered across the city, something that wouldn’t happen today thanks in part to the creation of a Joint Information Center, or JIC, in 2016.
Police and schools officials today say they’ve learned from 2015, and are better equipped now to avoid a repeat.
Matt Jablow, a Baltimore Police Department spokesman, said the department is “constantly in touch with MTA Police and School Police to coordinate our efforts in the event of major incidents that could affect the transportation system and the safety of our children.”
Anne Fullerton, a schools spokeswoman, also noted close collaboration during emergencies — such as after the shooting of a staff member inside Douglass in February, when the school system worked with the MTA to ensure a safe, staggered dismissal for students.
McKiver, who still keeps images from the unrest on her cellphone, said there is a “dichotomy” in her thinking about that day.
She believes that police and transit officials were trying to control a dangerous situation, but also that the safety of students was poorly considered in their calculations, if not entirely disregarded.
“What did you expect to happen when you have hundreds of kids who are stranded in a small area with no place to go?” she said.
“For many of my students, this was another opportunity for them to say, ‘Look. This is another example of how police officers don’t care about us,’ ” McKiver said.
McKiver, now a teacher at Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School, said she wishes she and other Douglass teachers had taken more seriously those students who had shown them “purge” memes earlier in the day — which she now sees as clear warnings that were largely ignored.
Her son, Cooper-Flight, said he still feels that police arriving at Mondawmin in riot gear was “a hazardous thing to do,” ratcheting up tensions and helping to cause a situation that left many of his friends less safe instead of more. To get home that day, he said, one friend had to walk all the way across town as the city burned.
Then came the blame. Cooper-Flight recalled walking in the neighborhood after the unrest, and hearing a woman jeer at him and his friend in their school uniforms: “There go them Douglass kids who started the riot,” she said.
“You don’t even know the whole story about how it all went down,” he remembered thinking. “To be a Douglass student, and to have this happen to us — it was unfair.”