Reviewing the riots

Maryland's National Guard is reviewing its response to the unrest that followed Freddie Gray's funeral, and its leaders have already briefed the commanders of every other state and territorial guard in the nation on their experience.

Maryland Transit Administration Police officials say they are seeking to learn from their deployment during the riots and to institute new training and procedures and to stockpile protective equipment for officers. Meanwhile, the union that represents MTA police is seeking a full-scale investigation of the agency's response, arguing that poor decision making by commanders during the riots endangered officers by sending them into dangerous situations without proper equipment.


Baltimore's Fraternal Order of Police made similar complaints about the way its members were deployed on the night of the riots in a report that was summarily dismissed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake as a bit of political theater. But before he was fired, former Police Commissioner Anthony Batts had prepared his own analysis of the deployment (though it has not seen the light of day), and he had embarked on another review through the Police Executive Research Forum. Meanwhile, Ms. Rawlings-Blake "clearly acknowledges that there were mistakes made and that we were not prepared on a number of fronts," a spokesman said, and has demanded her own "after-action" report.

All this smacks of the Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant: Each perceives a bit of the truth without understanding the totality of what is before them. Even if all of these reviews are entirely honest and lacking in self-serving motives — unlikely, given the charged politics of the situation — they are bound to reflect institutional biases and limited perspectives.

The response to the unrest in Baltimore was a complex one that crossed a wide variety of state and local agencies, and understanding the extent to which they did or did not work together effectively is crucial to determining what went right and wrong and what should be done differently. What we need is a single, over-arching review, conducted by a disinterested party with the legal authority to compel all the individual players to provide information about their responses to the riots, and the credibility to draw conclusions about them.

The extent to which that isn't happening is underscored by the continuing mystery of who ordered the MTA to cut off bus and Metro service at the Mondawmin transit hub as students were gathering there, either to protest or to go home that Monday afternoon. The MTA has said the request came from Baltimore police, but the police refer questions back to the MTA, and Mayor Rawlings-Blake said last week that she still doesn't know the answer. Beyond knowing who gave the order lie the questions of who failed to inform the school system that the buses weren't running and whether the decision promoted or hindered public safety.

Likewise, questions about whether orders for officers to "hold the line" and avoid engaging with the rioters aren't likely to come to a satisfactory conclusion under the present hodgepodge of reviews. Just as the mayor scoffed at the FOP's after action report, the rank and file are likely to view any defense of the strategy by the administration as an exercise in self justification, which is a shame since experts interviewed by The Sun's Kevin Rector indicated that it probably was the right approach. We're also not likely to get anything like an objective answer about whether the National Guard should have been deployed in Baltimore sooner, given the feuding on the topic between the mayor and governor.

Finally, there's an important perspective that's missing in all of this, and that is of the public who were affected by the riots. How do the city's strategies to de-emphasize the protection of private property look to the residents and business owners whose homes and stores were burned or looted? Was the curfew following the riots an effective response or an unnecessarily punishing one for the city's bars and restaurants? Was it enforced evenly or only in some neighborhoods? Did the public appreciate efforts to avoid the kind of overtly militaristic response that officials employed during last year's riots in Ferguson, Mo., or would they have preferred that Baltimore authorities act more forcefully?

If there's one thing that all the various parties seem to agree on, it's that Baltimore isn't out of the woods. The trial of the six officers involved in Freddie Gray's arrest presents the possibility of another flash point for unrest. We appreciate that everyone seems to want to learn the lessons of April's riots so that we are better prepared if they happen again. But we fear that without a single, authoritative reckoning of what happened that day, we won't be.