One of the lasting images of Baltimore's unrest on the day of Freddie Gray's funeral was the lines of police officers standing shoulder to shoulder as rioters hurled at them rocks, bricks, bottles and whatever else was at hand. Even as police went down with injuries, some substantial, their fellow officers appeared mainly to do nothing but stand there and take the abuse. Looters, meanwhile, made off with armloads of merchandise, and arsonists set fire to dozens of businesses causing millions of dollars in damage.
The seeming passivity of the police has spawned a variety of rumors among the public and officers — that commanders or even Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake herself had issued an order to "stand down," or that they had made a conscious decision not to interfere as rioters damaged property. Both the mayor and Police Commissioner Anthony Batts categorically deny that. But the commissioner's latest account of what orders were given on the night of April 27, as reported by The Sun's Justin George, isn't much better.
Mr. Batts and other police commanders say they repeatedly gave an order to "hold the line," which they say meant that officers should maintain their ranks to keep a barrier between the rioters and businesses, police operations and innocent people. The rationale, Mr. Batts and others say, is that if some officers had broken off to engage with rioters, they would have made themselves more vulnerable and opened up holes in their ranks, which could have allowed rioters to get behind the lines and cause more damage and injury.
Whether or not that was the most effective way to respond to what happened on that Monday afternoon and night, it is abundantly clear that the strategy was poorly communicated to the officers in the field. Mr. Batts acknowledges that even now there is confusion among officers about the difference between "hold the line" and "stand down," which police commanders say signifies something akin to retreat. If officers are still confused about the distinction, how clear were they about what they were supposed to be doing and why on the night of the riots?
Mr. Batts, in an address to the Fraternal Order of Police in May, appeared to apologize for his handling of the riots, though later he said what he meant was that he was sorry he had not given the department better training in crowd control in the months leading up to the unrest. (He claims to have had a sense that something was coming even before Freddie Gray became a household name.) But the meaning of the command "hold the line," the rationale for it and the distinction between it and "stand down" are not that complicated.
Police should have anticipated the potential for trouble and made clear the tactics they wanted officers to use should it come to pass the moment the post-Freddie Gray protests began. They certainly should have done so after protests turned violent on the night of Saturday, April 25. And we know that on that Monday, they had reason to believe unrest was coming — several downtown institutions and businesses closed early that day on advice from police that teens had been circulating plans for a "purge" on social media, and officers were waiting at the Mondawmin transit station when students arrived there after school. Commanders had ample opportunity to explain the plan to officers before they were put in harm's way.
Mr. Batts is quick to point out that he requested 1,000 officers from neighboring jurisdictions days before any violence occurred but that he only got 200. As a result, he has said, officers were outnumbered and outflanked. But if that's the explanation for the evident ineffectiveness of the department's tactics in protecting public safety and property, it's all the more perplexing that the mayor took hours after violence broke out to ask Gov. Larry Hogan to call in the National Guard.
The mayor and police commissioner have been asked repeatedly about the supposed "stand down" order. It is only now, two months after the fact, that Mr. Batts and his commanders have offered a public explanation of what orders they did give and why — a delay that speaks to just how little transparency there has been about what happened that night and how little effort there has been to glean lessons from it. The Fraternal Order of Police is preparing its own after-action report, though it has received little cooperation from the city in terms of handing over communications between and among the police and City Hall. Both the mayor and the department say they have called for probes into how police were deployed, but why hasn't that happened yet? Ms. Rawlings-Blake has been much quicker to pull together blue ribbon panels for much less.
Although we fervently hope otherwise, Baltimore could see more riots, whether over developments in the case against the officers involved in Freddie Gray's death or something else entirely. It's well and good that Mayor Rawlings-Blake announced Wednesday that the city is getting more and better riot gear for officers, but it's going to take more than helmets and shields for Baltimore to be prepared for another disturbance. It's going to take real openness and communication between the police commanders, City Hall, the rank and file and the public, and so far, we're not seeing nearly enough of it.