Mayor: Baltimore wasn't fully prepared for riot

"I never suggested that we were totally prepared," mayor says of unrest.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake acknowledged Tuesday that her administration was not fully prepared for the rioting in April, but said officials are learning from it and working to improve should more unrest flare up.

"I never suggested that we were totally prepared, because this was something that the city hadn't seen in over 40 years," Rawlings-Blake said, a day after the city released more than 7,000 internal emails about the unrest. "What I did say is that we were going to learn from everything that happened in the unrest and the riots so that we're more prepared for the future."

The Baltimore Sun reported Monday that the emails and other documents show that communications within government broke down during the riots of April 27, as officials desperate for information exchanged rumors and subordinates questioned city leaders. Even as Baltimoreans were looting stores and throwing rocks at police, emails show, officers were waiting for riot gear that was on order.

The emails, obtained by The Sun through a public information request, also show that city officials were reluctant to call in the National Guard as the violence — which started about 3 p.m. at Mondawmin Mall — escalated.

The mayor's office was getting emailed pleas from residents to call in the Guard as news of the unrest spread. One wrote at 4:03 p.m., "Bring in the national guard." Another email to the mayor at 4:34 p.m. said, "I think you need to call in the National Guard to help in this."

At 4 p.m., Kaliope Parthemos, the mayor's chief of staff, told another staffer how to respond to such calls: "State troopers have been assisting. National guard is only when there is a state of emergency."

Some residents vehemently disagreed with the city's approach. At 5:10 p.m., Bonnie and Elden Schneider wrote to the mayor: "Enough is enough!! Call in the National Guard!!!"

At 6:07 p.m., Joyce Green, president of a community relations council in the Central Police District, wrote to then-Commissioner Anthony W. Batts.

"This has got to stop before more civilians and officers are injured," she wrote. "It is time to call in the National Guard to help stop this and to call for a Curfew to get everyone off the streets. I don't want to see anyone else injured or more property damaged and destroyed.

"The CVS may never come back and I fear we may lose the supermarket," Green wrote. "The city never fully recovered from the riots in the 60s and the same thing is going to happen again."

In an interview with The Sun, Kevin Harris, a spokesman for the mayor, said Rawlings-Blake was trying to balance the need to call in the National Guard against the concerns of some citizens worried about children being harmed by soldiers.

"For every person who said 'Bring in the National Guard,' there were people saying 'Don't hurt those kids,'" Harris said. "She's the mayor for all those people. She can't pick and choose who she cares about."

The mayor "had concerns about calling in the National Guard," Harris said. "The National Guard can't even technically make arrests. 'Is this the right solution for what we're experiencing?' They talked through the logistics of that."

Rawlings-Blake did not address the public about the riot for several hours, Harris said, because she was determining the best course to calm the unrest.

"She didn't think the right thing to do was go talk to the public when you don't have an answer yet for what you're going to do," Harris said.

Harris also released a timeline of the mayor's actions that day.

As rioting broke out at Mondawmin, the mayor was meeting with Baltimore schools CEO Gregory Thornton to discuss events related to the Freddie Gray case, according to her office. At 4:30 p.m., the mayor attended a previously scheduled meeting with students to discuss the case. During the meeting, Harris said, Rawlings-Blake made the call to activate the Emergency Operations Center and convene her entire Cabinet.

Between 5 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., Rawlings-Blake held a meeting at Baltimore police headquarters and made the decision to impose a curfew and to ask Gov. Larry Hogan to call in the National Guard. The telephone call to Hogan was made about 6:30 p.m.

According to the emails, the Maryland Emergency Management Administration sent out an alert at 6:42 p.m. saying the governor had declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard.

At the time, Hogan, a Republican, said Rawlings-Blake did not return his repeated phone calls for more than two hours as rioting spread across the city, causing him to wait rather than call in the Guard without her. In a news conference, Hogan said he was glad when the mayor finally called him.

Officials at the U.S. Conference of Mayors were angered by Hogan's televised comments, according to the emails released by the city.

Laura Waxman, the conference's director of public safety, wrote a top aide to Rawlings-Blake at 8:01 p.m.

"Such a tragic situation," she wrote. "Just heard Gov. Hogan say that he's glad the Mayor finally asked him to call out the Guard. He then sort of dialed it back a bit, but I'm seething!!!!"

During her meetings with police officials, Rawlings-Blake gave directives to restore order and avoid loss of life, according to Harris.

"She said, 'I want calm. I want peace in my city, and I want minimal loss of life, both for my officers and for my citizens. How do we get there?'" Harris recalls. "Her goals were exactly what was accomplished. There was peace and order restored, and there was no loss of life to citizens or for cops."

Even so, Rawlings-Blake said the city is learning lessons from the riot, during which more than 400 businesses sustained damage and more than 100 police officers were injured. The mayor said the Police Department is instituting new training and ordering new equipment.

"Every step of the way along the process, whether it's reviewing the emails or the after-action report, we're putting [improvements] in place immediately," she said. "Whether it's instituting new training, ordering new equipment, everything, we're not waiting until those studies are over."

In the emails, Batts wrote to a supporter that during protests and vandalism on April 25 over Gray's death, he felt officers needed to be restrained in their response. "In short, because this was a protest against the Baltimore Police Department, we couldn't be seen as the aggressors or instigators, as such we needed to give them space," Batts said.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Rawlings-Blake said she agreed with that approach.

"It's national protocol and best practices," she said. "What public safety experts have said is that we used the right protocols and practices and the right strategy to de-escalate the situation and bring peace and order to the streets."

Green, who was among the residents calling for the Guard, said Tuesday that she believes Baltimore police handled the situation well.

"If the police had reacted, more civilians and police would have been injured," she said. "But I didn't like seeing them standing there doing nothing to protect themselves. I think lessons will be learned from what happened. These officers weren't here in the 1960s to see the riots. They weren't prepared."

On Tuesday, interim Police Commissioner Kevin Davis promised better training and equipment.

"I hope it's 47 more years before we face another moment of unrest, but in the event that it's not 47 more years, we have to be in a position and we will be in a position and we're well on our way to being in a position of preparedness," he said. "So for the community to know that its police department is now taking very, very seriously the training and equipment that goes along with responsible civil disturbance training, I think that's something that bodes well with our community and it's something that we're taking very seriously."

Baltimore's police union issued a highly critical "after-action" report this month on how the city handled the rioting. The report said that the unrest was preventable and that the police response was hindered by a leadership that was concerned with image over safety.

Union President Gene Ryan said Tuesday that the organization has received the 7,000 emails turned over to The Sun.

"What we have reviewed thus far corroborates and validates what we were told by our members," he said.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore, like Rawlings-Blake a Democrat, defended her performance.

""The mayor was facing a very, very difficult circumstances," he said. "I think there's a lot of Monday-morning quarterbacks judging. I was in constant communication with the mayor, and I want people to keep in mind we did not have one bullet fired during the course of the disturbance," including none fired by the police.

Cummings said members of Congress and local officials from across the country have asked him about the way the city was able to handle the rioting.

"There are some who want to shine a negative light on what happened," Cummings said. "At the same time, I've got to tell you there are people, from Cleveland or other cities, they say they want to take a lesson from us. The mayor was able to galvanize the religious community and work with the gangs and others to quell a lot of this violence. I think that says a lot."

Baltimore Sun reporters Ian Duncan, Kevin Rector and Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.

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Rawlings-Blake timeline Monday, April 27

9:30 a.m. Mayor visits Gilmor Elementary School

10:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Mayor attends Freddie Gray funeral

About 1:30 p.m. Mayor returns to City Hall, is interviewed and photographed for Time magazine

2 p.m. Mayor leads conference call with foundation, hospital and university leaders about Gray's death, related issues

About 2:30 p.m. Mayor speaks briefly with President Barack Obama about Gray's death, related issues

About 3 p.m. Mayor holds previously scheduled meeting at City Hall with schools CEO Gregory Thornton. Outside Mondawmin Mall, high school students and city police face off. Rock-throwing and violence ensue.

About 4:30 p.m. Mayor participates in previously scheduled meeting with students about Freddie Gray. Violence erupts at Pennsylvania and North avenues, where a CVS is soon burned. While meeting with students, mayor calls to activate Emergency Operations Center.

5 p.m.-6:35 p.m. Mayor holds meeting at police headquarters, decides to impose curfew and ask governor to call in National Guard. Call to governor is made about 6:30 p.m.

6:45 p.m. Mayor arrives at operations center, provides direction to Cabinet, prepares to brief public.

8 p.m. Mayor briefs public

9 p.m.-2 a.m. Mayor tours city to assess riot damage. Security receives threat against mayor's home. Her family spends the night outside the city as she remains in Baltimore.

Sources: Baltimore City government; Baltimore Sun reporting

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