If Baltimore's officials have learned one lesson from the April unrest, it is this: Don't say things that sound like you're condoning rioting. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, infamous for her "space to destroy" remark before the major unrest in April, said this time that she was activating the city's Emergency Response Center even before a verdict is released in the trial of William Porter, the first of six officers charged in connection with Freddie Gray's death. Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, mindful perhaps of his predecessor's remarks about viewing Baltimore as ripe for a riot, released a letter Monday night warning that "we will allow the lawful assembly of those gathered to question the government. We will protect homes, businesses, residents and police officers from harm and mayhem." And city schools CEO Gregory Thornton sent a letter of his own, promising consequences for any students who walk out of school in protest over the verdict.
Baltimore should have been prepared for the possibility of violence in the wake of Freddie Gray's death, but it was not. Reports from the Fraternal Order of Police, the Police Executive Research Forum and the Johns Hopkins University Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response all criticized the city for poor communication and planning, unclear chains of command, a lack of training and confusion about strategy and tactics for containing the mayhem. The mayor has conceded as much and promised to learn the lessons of the city's failures in April. The question is whether she and other city officials have learned the right ones.
Inasmuch as Ms. Rawlings-Blake was criticized for being too hands-off in the city's handling of the unrest — both because of the "space to destroy" comment and because it took her several hours to ask the governor to call out the National Guard — it is also possible that some actions officials took fanned the violence by being overly aggressive. The Police Department's announcement that Monday that it had credible information — which later turned out to be altogether unfounded — indicating that gang members were joining forces to attack police officers increased the anxiety in the city. So did the response to a message circulating on social media among high school students calling for a "purge" after school that day. The appearance of a phalanx of riot gear-glad police officers waiting outside the Mondawmin transit hub thousands of students use to get home certainly didn't calm tensions, and the decision to shut down bus routes exacerbated the problem.
The city has purchased better riot gear for police officers since April, and the mayor and other officials promise much better communication and coordination should the unrest recur, and better procedures and policies generally in how to handle mass demonstrations, peaceful or otherwise. The mayor and Gov. Larry Hogan have already spoken about coordinating their responses, and police from other departments are staging in Druid Hill Park. Initially, some were reportedly wearing riot gear, but they took it off; Baltimore police were astute enough to understand, as a spokesman said, that it was "not the visual that we want to portray."
But at this propitious moment, when we don't know how the jury will decide Mr. Porter's case or how the city will react, the tone top officials set in their communications with the public can play an important role in setting expectations. There is a delicate balance to be struck between welcoming peaceful protest and allowing crowds to get out of control, between making clear that violence and destruction are unacceptable and egging people on.
Mr. Davis' letter to his force hit the mark. He wrote that he had been advised to write two letters in advance of Mr. Porter's trial, to wait until after the verdict and to release whichever one was appropriate. Instead, he framed a message to officers in terms of expecting them to be at their best no matter what comes. Officers "must firmly resist the low expectations some have of the Baltimore Police Department," he wrote. "There is nothing that will distract us from being considered anything but the very best in the important days ahead of us." It was the right message for the police and for the public who have been listening to Mr. Porter's defense team paint the department as deeply dysfunctional.
Mr. Thornton's message seemed, by contrast, to expect the worst. It suggested an assumption that city students were prone to "being drawn into potentially violent situations through poor decision making." In saying that "students need to understand that we support their right to express their emotions," he implied that their concerns about the death of Freddie Gray, the trials of the officers involved and everything related to them were childish and not connected to legitimate grievances. As both the ACLU and Open Society Institute observed, the message appeared to conflate peaceful protest with violence.
Come what may, the most crucial voice after the verdict will have to come from Mayor Rawlings-Blake. Of all the lessons to be learned from April, we hope she will have taken note of how damaging was her absence from public view during the crucial early hours of the riot. Whatever the jury may decide, she needs to project visible leadership, for the sake of her city and for the world that will be watching.