Lessons unlearned from the riots

After the riots, Baltimore needs its own equivalent of the 9/11 Commission.

It was obvious from the moment that rock throwing rioters clashed with police outside Mondawmin Mall that Baltimore was ill prepared for violent unrest in the wake of Freddie Gray's death, but every new disclosure about what happened that Monday serves to prove just how profound that lack of preparation was and just how widely it was spread. What's truly distressing, though, is how many days have gone by without any comprehensive understanding of what went wrong or a plan to prevent it from happening again.

To be sure, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has promised better riot gear for police before the verdicts come down in the cases against the six officers involved in Gray's arrest. And the city police have promised better training in crowd control. But the wide variety of emails, surveillance video and other materials Sun reporters Justin Fenton and Erica Green obtained through Public Information Act requests show that those were just the tip of the dysfunction iceberg. As the warning signs of unrest mounted, various agencies involved in keeping the public safe failed to share information and made disjointed decisions that may have made matters worse.


Around midday on the Sunday before the riots, police and city schools officials learned of a flier on social media saying there would be a "purge" at Mondawmin the following afternoon, a prospect officials thought to be credible. A flurry of emails among school officials followed, the concrete result of which was a plan for the mayor to speak to students at an elementary school before heading to Gray's funeral the next day.

But it did not lead to contingency plans to close schools in the area early or late the following day if the rumors appeared to be founded. Police warnings about the possible "purge" prompted universities, businesses and other institutions on Baltimore's west side to close early that Monday, but when the Maryland Transit Administration police asked at about 1:30 p.m. for school officials to hold students late, the system's CEO, Gregory Thornton, said it was impossible on such short notice. (And why such a request would come from the MTA police and not, say, the mayor's office is a great question.)

Meanwhile, schools officials had no idea that the MTA had shut down bus and Metro operations at the Mondawmin transit hub. Who made that decision is also a mystery; MTA says it was the city police, and city police refer questions about it to the MTA.

When students walked out of Frederick Douglass High School at about a quarter to three that Monday afternoon, some city school police officers were on hand at Mondawmin, but so were a large contingent of city police. To what extent their activities were coordinated and their orders synchronized is unclear. Police radio transmissions show confusion about what tactics to use — one minute, someone urges officers to start "corralling these kids" and "making arrests," and later someone orders officers "do not advance; hold the line." Surveillance video from the intersection of North and Pennsylvania avenues, a center of the eventual destruction, shows officers largely staying out of the way during the bulk of the looting and vandalism.

That new information comes on top of what we have previously learned — that officers on the street were confused about the meaning and purpose of the "hold the line command," and that Gov. Larry Hogan's office was unable to contact Mayor Rawlings-Blake during crucial hours as the situation spun out of control. By the time the mayor asked for help from the National Guard, the worst of the damage — to officers' safety, to private property and to Baltimore's international reputation — had already been done.

The Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police has completed an after action report that sheds some light on what went wrong but mainly raises more questions. Former police commissioner Anthony Batts said before he was dismissed that he had completed an internal review of police activity that day and night, and he was actually in a meeting with the Police Executive Research Forum discussing the riot response when he was fired. That group is slated to do its own assessment of police activity.

But what this latest batch of information underscores is the extent to which such piecemeal evaluations of what happened are inadequate. The time horizon for reviewing what happened needs to extend to the first signs of possible trouble in the week between Gray's death and his funeral, and the scope needs to go far beyond any one entity. The communications and decision-making failures extend across a number of city and state agencies, and they involve political sensitivities spanning from City Hall to the State House.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Congress and President George W. Bush agreed to create an independent, bi-partisan commission to "prepare a full and complete account of the circumstances" of those events, including the nation's preparation and response to them. We need something like that here — a commission with sufficient clout and independence to get to the bottom of things, and to do so in a holistic way.

The scope of the authority necessary is probably beyond what the city can do on its own — it may require an act of the legislature — but it needs to be done. The issue is not simply whom to blame — though voters certainly have an interest in that question — but what needs to change to make sure this never happens again.