The official story, it seems, is that Mr. Batts saw a riot coming long before Freddie Gray became a household name and failed to follow his instinct that more training on crowd control was needed. Regardless, his rather ambiguous initial remarks beg questions about what decisions he and other top commanders made on the nights of the riots, what orders they got from Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration, what orders they gave to officers in the field and whether the strategies they employed were the best ones. Baltimore is in the midst of a major investigation into its day-to-day policing policies and practices by the U.S. Department of Justice, but it clearly also needs some independent accounting of what went so wrong last month. What the public has heard so far has often been contradictory and confusing, not illuminating, and provides little confidence that the city could handle such a situation better next time.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has said she didn't want to inflame the situation around Mondawmin Mall on the afternoon of Freddie Gray's funeral, when word was circulating on social media that students planned to gather there for a "purge." Yet the first thing students saw when school recessed was a phalanx of uniformed officers in riot gear. If the idea was that the show of force would scare the teens away, it clearly backfired. The officers wound up looking like targets rather than keepers of the peace.
What actions were police ordered to take to calm the situation, restore order and bring things back under control? What are the standard best-practices to employ in such situations and were they followed in this case? Mr. Batts and Ms. Rawlings-Blake owe the public an account of how the police were deployed and what they was ordered to do to contain the violence and protect businesses and property when the demonstrators reached downtown, where merchants claim there was virtually no police presence at all as looters broke into shops and carried off merchandise. Is there any truth to the widespread rumor among police — denied by the mayor and commissioner — that officers were ordered to "stand down"?
We appreciate the mayor's desire to react that night in a way that minimized the danger of anyone being seriously injured or killed, but the question is whether the tactics adopted by the police that afternoon and evening were likely to achieve that goal or whether they simply helped tip an already tense situation into violence. Baltimore needs an answer.
Mr. Batts' apology came when he was invited to address members of the Fraternal Order of Police, which has launched its own investigation into the matter. But given the anger, confusion and demoralization reportedly gripping the department's rank-and file, we can't expect a dispassionate assessment of the department's performance to come from that quarter. Indeed, that group's effort sounds more like a precursor to a no-confidence vote in the commissioner.
Baltimore needs an in-depth analysis by independent law enforcement experts of the events leading up to and during the violence sparked by Mr. Gray's death so the city can be better prepared if it happens again. Frankly, it's shocking that the City Council hasn't already sought to launch such a probe. The matter is urgent. Even though the violence related to the protests has died down for now, it could recur at any time under similar circumstances. Baltimore is not out the woods yet.