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Space to destroy

What is almost certainly the most widely repeated and hotly debated utterance of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's career takes center stage in the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police's report on how officers were equipped and deployed during the rioting that preceded and followed Freddie Gray's funeral in April. It's right there on the title page: "We also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that." And it strikes to the heart of the central question many officers and ordinary citizens alike have asked in the weeks since: Did the mayor or command staff give orders to front-line police that allowed the unrest to billow out of control into full-scale violence and destruction?

The mayor has insisted that the quote has been misconstrued, that what she meant was that a decision to give space to peaceful protesters had the unfortunate and unintended result of affording those with malicious intent the ability to cause mayhem. But the accounts the FOP compiled add weight to the accusations that the mayor's remark reflected more than an inartful turn of phrase but a deliberate strategy. It demands a much more thorough and transparent response than police commanders and City Hall have provided so far.

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The FOP has had a legacy of tension with Mayor Rawlings-Blake, including a years-long dispute about changes to pension benefits that the union took to federal court and opposition to her efforts to reform state laws governing officer discipline. It is in that sense not necessarily the ideal entity to take on the task of analyzing how she and her police commissioner, Anthony Batts, handled an event that left many officers literally and figuratively wounded. The mayor pounced on that history to discredit the report as "a trumped up political document full of baseless allegations, finger pointing and personal attacks." (Speaking of personal attacks, the statement accuses the FOP of "choosing to be their lesser selves.") But the assertions the union makes about what instructions officers were given and how they were trained and equipped are too specific and detailed to be dismissed so easily.

In particular, the report says that Commissioner Batts and other top commanders told hundreds of officers during a roll call on April 25, the Saturday when the Freddie Gray protests first turned violent, that they should allow some level of destruction of property before intervening "so that it would show that the rioters were forcing our hand." The report describes protocols in which officers were required to get approval from the department's civilian lawyers before making arrests and communications over police radio channels in which officers were told to allow looting to take place. The report claims officers were told not to wear helmets, gloves and other protective gear so as not to appear too "Billy badass" and that they were ordered to use non-lethal crowd control equipment in ways that were ineffective.

The mayor and commissioner have acknowledged some shortcomings in the city's response to the riots. Ms. Rawlings-Blake recently promised new riot gear before the verdicts in the cases against the six officers involved in Freddie Gray's death — the FOP report details myriad faults with the equipment officers were given — and Mr. Batts has apologized for having failed to provide officers with more training in crowd control. Last week, he acknowledged widespread confusion about the meaning and purpose of orders to "hold the line" during the unrest rather than to engage the rioters and make arrests. But the portrait of the city's civilian and police leaders that emerges from the FOP's report is far more damning, suggesting indecisiveness and a greater concern with how the police response looked on TV than with how effective it was in protecting officer safety and private property.

The FOP's report is based on interviews with police who were on the front lines, focus groups and surveys, and it consists largely of accounts by officers who are not named. (In fairness, the union had little choice there, as officers would surely have faced discipline had they lent their names to the project.) But it is rich for the mayor's spokesman to tut-tut that "the FOP continues to issue baseless and false information instead of working with us to find solutions that will protect our officers." The FOP filed a Public Information Act request for reams of information that could have shed some objective light on the situation — tapes of radio transmissions, emails, text messages and the like — but the city has handed over very little of it.

This report has its limitations and biases, but more than two months after the fact, it's the only report we've got. Neither the police nor the mayor's administration have issued anything like a comprehensive assessment of what happened on those nights of violence, and a third-party review by the Police Executive Research Forum is only slated to begin today. If what the FOP reported is wrong, Mayor Rawlings-Blake and Commissioner Batts need to prove it.

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