The emails Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration released this week in response to a Sun Public Information Act request underscore the chaos and confusion city officials experienced as they grappled to deal with the riots that erupted on the day of Freddie Gray's funeral. The real question is what is revealed in the emails the city did not release.
"Communications that are pre-decisional and reflect the give-and-take of the decision-making process are protected," a pair of assistant city solicitors wrote by way of explanation for the unknown number of documents that were withheld. In fairness to the city, this is not a new or novel argument. State law allows (but does not require) government agencies to keep those sorts of records secret. But as the community seeks to evaluate whether the violence and destruction that occurred on April 27 could have been mitigated or prevented, those are precisely the sorts of records that are most important. Of particular note, most of the details from the police department's "civil disturbance" operations plan were blacked out.
The mayor, of course, will have access to all that information as her administration completes its "after action" report. But the political cross-currents Ms. Rawlings-Blake is facing — from the criticism embodied in the Fraternal Order of Police's own after-action report to the condemnation former mayor Sheila Dixon has heaped on her — make it difficult to believe that any public reckoning her administration makes will be truly objective. If we are ever going to get a true picture of what happened and an unsparing assessment of what went wrong, we need a credible, third-party review panel with the power to access all relevant information. Otherwise, we're likely to wind up with a hodgepodge of incomplete and potentially contradictory reports by all the various agencies involved.
Many reviews, none authoritative
Maryland's National Guard is reviewing its response to the unrest that followed Freddie Gray's funeral, and its leaders have already briefed the commanders of every other state and territorial guard in the nation on their experience. Maryland Transit Administration Police officials say they are seeking to learn from their deployment during the riots and to institute new training and procedures and to stockpile protective equipment for officers. Meanwhile, the union that represents MTA police is seeking a full-scale investigation of the agency's response, arguing that poor decision making by commanders during the riots endangered officers by sending them into dangerous situations without proper equipment.
Baltimore's Fraternal Order of Police made similar complaints about the way its members were deployed on the night of the riots, but their invesitgation was summarily dismissed by Mayor Rawlings-Blake as a bit of political theater. Before he was fired, former Police Commissioner Anthony Batts had prepared his own analysis of the deployment (though it has not seen the light of day), and he had embarked on another review through the Police Executive Research Forum. Meanwhile, Ms. Rawlings-Blake "clearly acknowledges that there were mistakes made and that we were not prepared on a number of fronts," a spokesman said, which is why she has demanded her own after-action report.
All this smacks of the Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant: Each perceives a bit of the truth without understanding the totality of what is before them. Even if all of these reviews are entirely honest and lacking in self-serving motives — unlikely, given the charged politics of the situation — they are bound to reflect institutional biases and limited perspectives.
The response to the unrest in Baltimore was a complex one that crossed a wide variety of state and local agencies, and understanding the extent to which they did or did not work together effectively is crucial to determining what went right and wrong and what should be done differently. No single one of them can possibly accomplish that task.
The extent to which that isn't happening is underscored by the continuing mystery of who ordered the MTA to cut off bus and Metro service at the Mondawmin transit hub as students were gathering there, either to protest or to go home that Monday afternoon. The MTA has said the request came from Baltimore police, but the police refer questions back to the MTA, and Mayor Rawlings-Blake said last week that she still doesn't know the answer. Beyond knowing who gave the order, are the questions of who failed to inform the school system that the buses weren't running and whether the decision promoted or hindered public safety.
Questions about whether orders for officers to "hold the line" and avoid engaging with the rioters aren't likely to come to a satisfactory conclusion without a third-party review. Just as the mayor scoffed at the FOP's after action report, the rank and file are likely to view any defense of the strategy by the administration as an exercise in self justification, which is a shame since experts interviewed by The Sun's Kevin Rector indicated that it probably was the right approach. We're also not likely to get anything like an objective answer about whether the National Guard should have been deployed in Baltimore sooner, given the feuding on the topic between the mayor and governor. Likewise, we now learn that the governor and mayor disagreed about when Baltimore's curfew should have been lifted. Who was right?
City officials began preparing for the possibility of unrest on Monday afternoon more than 24 hours in advance, based on intelligence gleaned from social media. In that light, was it helpful or harmful in that context the police department to circulate what it deemed a "credible" threat that gang members would target officers? Who made that decision?
Why were officers so ill-equipped when violence broke out on April 27? Protests about Freddie Gray's death had been ongoing for a week by that time, and after the Ferguson, Mo., riots, the possibility that such demonstrations could turn violent had to have occurred to everyone in Baltimore. More to the point, city officials had been tracking out-of-town protest leader Malik Shabazz before the riots for fear that his presence could turn what had been peaceful protests toward violence. Indeed, that happened to a limited extent outside Camden Yards on April 25. Yet on April 27, police were scrambling to equip officers with protective gear and to order more when the supply proved inadequate. The city's finance director approved a request for riot gloves, shields, batons and other items at 4:01 a.m. on April 28. Was there any internal conversation about stocking up on that kind of equipment before it was too late?
Finally, there's an important perspective that's missing in all of this, and that is of the public affected by the riots. How do the city's strategies to de-emphasize the protection of private property in an effort to protect people from bodily harm look to the residents and business owners whose homes and stores were burned or looted? Was the curfew following the riots an effective response or an unnecessarily punishing one for the city's bars and restaurants? Was it enforced evenly or only in some neighborhoods? Did the public appreciate efforts to avoid the kind of overtly militaristic response that officials employed during last year's riots in Ferguson, or would they have preferred that Baltimore authorities act more forcefully?
We appreciate the passion city officials display in many of the emails the Rawlings-Blake administration released this week. It is clear, as a mayoral spokesman said, that many "went into overdrive to regain control of the situation." The same is evidently true of city schools officials, MTA police, state troopers, National Guard members and others who played a role in responding to the riots. But the "passion and urgency" they displayed clearly could have been deployed in a more effective, better coordinated manner. Coming to clear conclusions about the leadership displayed at all levels is crucial, and not just so we can point fingers of blame (though, given voters' role in holding public officials accountable, that's important too). This could happen again.
If there's one thing that all the various parties seem to agree on, it's that Baltimore isn't out of the woods. The trial of the six officers involved in Freddie Gray's arrest presents the possibility of another flash point for unrest. We appreciate that everyone seems to want to learn the lessons of April's riots so that we are better prepared if they happen again. But we fear that without a single, authoritative reckoning of what happened that day, we won't be.