The Baltimore Police Department is better prepared than ever before to handle civil disturbances, given the lessons it learned from the rioting that broke out in April, the mayor and police commissioner said Monday.
"It is our goal that something like that never happens again," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said. "It is our goal to maintain safety and order, to protect the public and protect the men and women of the Baltimore Police Department."
Others expressed skepticism of the city's preparedness.
"I know I wouldn't want to put us to the test, because I'm afraid at how strong the failure may be. I'm concerned about where we are right now," City Councilman Carl Stokes said.
An independent review of the department's handling of April's unrest found glaring problems, including inadequate planning, a chaotic and disorganized command structure, poor communication, and insufficient training and equipment for officers.
The report, by the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum, a highly regarded law enforcement think tank, had been requested by former Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts. The report cost $23,500 and was released publicly Monday.
Commissioner Kevin Davis, who replaced Batts in July, said in addition to the changes that have been made, the department also is more prepared because officers have experienced rioting, looting and arson on a large scale.
"It had been since 1968 since our city had experienced a riot, and it is not only a training and equipment deficiency that we've since addressed. We didn't have those experiences under our belt," Davis said. "We do now."
Many of the failings already had been identified by the city and the department, Rawlings-Blake said, and police have been instituting changes since the unrest subsided in early May.
"We were not waiting for this report to get those changes made, and I'm very pleased with the progress we have made," she said.
Stokes, who announced his candidacy for mayor just before Rawlings-Blake dropped out of the race in September, said he hopes the Police Department does continue to improve, so that residents and officers are safer.
"It's a damn shame, frankly, because we were, in many ways, so unprepared," he said. "It's pretty much stunning to see how unprepared we were. Command put men and women on the force in jeopardy. I don't blame the men and women on the force for being upset."
The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, the union that represents rank-and-file officers in the city, issued its own scathing review this summer of the department's performance during the unrest. It found similar failings as the PERF report, including officers being deployed without clear orders and a lack of training and equipment.
But under Davis, the department "has worked diligently to correct its past faults and to better prepare for any further situations of this nature," Lodge 3 President Gene Ryan said in a statement.
The prospect of future unrest has been raised in pretrial motions in the cases of six officers charged in Freddie Gray's arrest and death. Gray, 25, died of injuries sustained while in police custody, and the most serious rioting occurred April 27, the day of his funeral. The officers' attorneys have argued that fear of possible unrest could make it difficult to seat an impartial jury in the city.
All of the officers have pleaded not guilty.
Councilman Brandon Scott, vice chair of the City Council's public safety committee, said he plans to schedule a hearing where Davis can elaborate on the actions the department has taken to improve its preparedness.
"What we need to do is put everything in place to make sure we don't make the same mistakes again," he said. "You can never be fully prepared for something like this, but you can go off best practices. Clearly we made mistakes."
Scott and others said they still want to know who made the decision to shut down buses at Mondawmin Mall on April 27. Critics — including teachers — said at the time that the decision helped to ratchet up tensions by stranding high school students at a location where police were already staging in anticipation of trouble.
Scott said it would be critical to know whether it was a state official at the Maryland Transit Administration or a city official who made the call, and that the issue is one of many that needs further study.
"We have to think about that issue in the grand scheme of things," he said, and in the context of "all the other bad things that happened that day."
Stokes also expressed incredulity that no one could identify who ordered the cancellation of bus service. "That doesn't make sense," he said. "Somebody gave the order to shut them down."
Rawlings-Blake said Monday that "in a chaotic situation, sometimes you can't answer the question, because multiple people said the same thing — and that can be the answer."
"We've heard that MTA employees, the bus drivers, were afraid to go. We've heard that Baltimore City police made a call to close. We heard MTA people made a call to close based on those things. If those things happen all at the same time, then what is the answer?" she said.
The more important thing to note, she said, is that "underneath that chaos was a lack of strong communication, and we fixed that."
Rawlings-Blake and Davis addressed the Police Executive Research Forum report's findings during a news conference at City Hall. Davis said the department has addressed a number of problems identified in the report.
The department has spent nearly $2 million on new equipment for officers, and 1,500 officers have received civil disturbance training. Davis said the department also has improved and solidified its mutual aid agreements with surrounding jurisdictions, clarified policies for officers and empowered street commanders to make decisions to reduce the "bureaucracy" that slowed decision-making during the unrest.
The department has identified new space for command operations to avoid future crowding and created a Joint Information Center to disseminate information during crises. The department's Command Center was so crowded at times during the unrest that analysts and others couldn't get to their equipment or hear threat tips being called in.
And the department has adopted a national incident command model, according to Davis, and has worked under that model during more recent protests in the city. The Police Executive Research Forum criticized the department for not having such a model during the unrest. Since then the department has trained more commanders on the model's tenants and structure.
The Department of Homeland Security created the National Incident Management System — a standardized approach for first responders to major events — for use by cities across the country after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Baltimore police didn't have a formatted plan, as prescribed by the national system.
Joe Thomas, an expert in law enforcement leadership at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, called Baltimore's failure to adopt such a plan and fully train commanders on it the "big bombshell" of the Police Executive Research Forum report.
"If you would have had the command training in place well ahead of time, a lot of this stuff kind of takes care of itself. The procedures fall into place," Thomas said.