Who's in charge?

Baltimoreans woke this morning saddened and unsettled by the wanton destruction that engulfed much of the city the night before. Just hours after 25-year-old Freddie Gray was laid to rest amid calls for peaceful protest against the treatment of the city's poor and minority residents by police, a large group of teens clashed with officers near the Mondawmin transit station, and violence and lawlessness spread from west to east and throughout downtown. The images of cars on fire, officers felled by rock-throwing teens and looters pillaging and setting fire to stores were shocking and terrifying. People needed the reassurance of strong city leadership, and they didn't get it.

As Baltimore spun out of control Monday afternoon and evening, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was nowhere to be seen for hours. When she did emerge for televised news conferences, her demeanor was calm to the point of being flat and expressionless. The city needed to hear about action, not the hours she spent behind the scenes dealing with the "T's to be crossed and I's to be dotted" to make sure the executive order mandating an evening curfew was just right. The only time she did become animated was in defending her bungled statement from the weekend in which she appeared to suggest that the city had deliberately allowed some "space" for unlawful acts. "I never said, nor would I ever say, we are giving people space to destroy our city, so my words should not be twisted," she snapped at one reporter.


We don't believe the mayor was really giving permission for people to loot and pillage, and we certainly don't believe the teens were acting on what they thought was her authority. We doubt they heard what she said or would have cared if they did. Likewise, we doubt any of the rioters cared about the "Statement Regarding Mayor's Comments on the Rights of Protesters" her office issued, in which a spokesman annotated her language with italics, underlining and the strategic addition of a couple of words to convey what he said she really meant.

If that botched statement meant little to those who rioted, it meant a lot to the law-abiding residents of the city who began to wonder just who was in charge here and what she was thinking. That sentiment was doubtless bolstered by wonder that Ms. Rawlings-Blake did not act sooner to request that the governor declare a state of emergency and activate the National Guard. Evidently, Gov. Larry Hogan was wondering the same thing, as he told CNN in a news conference late Monday night that he had an executive order ready to sign and personnel ready to deploy as soon as the mayor called to request it. Though he may initially have been a little intemperate in hinting at his frustration, he eventually managed to say what the community needed to hear: "We'll get this under control. The city will be safe."


That was a message Police Commissioner Anthony Batts had failed to convey. Speaking at his own news conference, he implied that Baltimore was in for a rougher spell than Ferguson, Mo., because its much greater size would make it harder to control. He concluded by saying, "For those parents who have kids out there that came off that campus, take control of your kids." We certainly agree that all of us must play our parts in restoring order and marginalizing violence. But in the moment, it came across as if the police commissioner was recommending a do-it-yourself approach to riot suppression.

The police officers who tried to restore calm Monday night were placed in an awful and dangerous position. We offer our deepest sympathies to those who were harmed, and we are not in a position to judge whether they were deployed in the most effective way to prevent violence or to quash it once it erupted. But we can question whether the police leadership has done more to reassure the public or to terrify it. Even as Gray's funeral was going on, police urged the media to disseminate the message that the department's Criminal Intelligence Unit had received "credible information" that the Black Guerilla Family, Bloods and Crips gangs had teamed up to "take out" law enforcement officers. They could hardly have done more to signal that Baltimore was descending into anarchy. Even if the threat was genuine, what purpose was served by alerting the public?

Hours later, some members of those gangs met with 75 ministers to discuss ways to restore calm, and today several stood by City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young to proclaim their intent to stop the destruction of the community. We greet their proclamations with skepticism but also with the disquieting feeling that they may have done a more effective job at easing the public's fears than the police.

Tuesday was a jittery day in the city, with soldiers lining the streets and businesses, schools and other institutions jumping at rumors of more possible riots from the city to the county. The question on everyone's minds was whether Monday would be the end of the violence or whether it would continue to roil the city like the 1968 riots, whose legacy reverberates to this day. We have our concerns, as the aftermath of Gray's death offers many more potential flashpoints — one of which could come quite soon.

A week ago, Mr. Batts promised to hand over his investigation into the matter to State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby by May 1 — this Friday. But she has said that she is operating on her own timetable and not some arbitrary deadline, and he has softened his commitment by suggesting what he turns over may not immediately be made public. In setting a date, Mr. Batts created expectations that may well be unfulfilled. The Rev. Al Sharpton, recently in town, has seized on that to criticize the city for its handling of Gray's death; no doubt others will as well.

Baltimore has already suffered incalculable damage in terms of destroyed property, injured police officers and civilians, and the tarnished image of the city in the eyes of those who live here, in the suburbs and around the world. Repairing that damage is going to require real leadership. So far, we're not seeing it.