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How Baltimore Police Lost Control in 90 Minutes

7 minute read

On school days in western Baltimore, local kids gather at a drab shopping center called Mondawmin Mall where bus routes begin and end. On Monday, the hangout became the scene of a riot.

Policing experts who reconstructed the events of the day said that Baltimore police did not send enough officers to the situation at the start, failed to quickly make arrests once trouble began and did not deploy additional officers quickly enough. Key decisions led the situation to spiral out of control in a short 90 minutes, a lesson other police departments should heed.

Baltimore’s police force was prepared for more unrest related to the death of Freddie Gray, a black man who suffered a spinal injury while in police custody. Messages on social media seemed to be goading students to violence, so police went to the mall in riot gear by around 3 p.m. Still, they went prepared for typical high school rebellion, not a full-blown riot.

“When we deployed our officers yesterday, we were deploying for a high school event,” Baltimore Capt. J. Eric Kowalczyk told reporters on Tuesday.

Baltimore cops are trained to handle violent crowds, former police officials told TIME. Officers are drilled in maneuvers — how to form defensive lines, what formations to stand in, how to divide and conquer a crowd. But while police can practice arrests, subduing suspects and even home assaults, there is no real preparation for an angry mob like facing an angry mob itself. In the 90 minutes that Mondawmin Mall transformed from transit hub to launching pad for a riot, Baltimore police were outnumbered and too passive in pursuing arrests, experts said.

MORE: Baltimore Mayor Defends Handling of Riots

The timeline of Monday’s unrest goes something like this. By 3:30 p.m., the kids were throwing bottles and bricks at police officers. They were ordered to disperse, but the violence escalated as officers were injured. By 4:30 they were setting fires and making their way downtown. The police were unable to stop them. “I was there. I saw our reaction. I gave directions to advance,” Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said. “They just outnumbered us and they outflanked us.”

The officers at Mondawmin Mall were too small a group to properly handle the crowd, experts say. There were enough officers at the mall to hold a line and some property, but not enough to penetrate the crowd and make arrests, says Neill Franklin, who oversaw Baltimore police training from 2000 to 2004. “You’ve got to have enough boots on the ground,” said Franklin. “Without that, there’s nothing you can do. You’ll be overwhelmed very quickly.” Also important for policing is a deep familiarity with surrounding streets and alleys. In order to secure an area, Franklin said, police should know all the access and exit points where protestors can approach from.

Before backup arrived, the police officers stationed on the streets around Mondawmin Mall were unable to arrest stone-throwers quickly enough to snuff out the violence.

For a crucial hour and a half on Monday afternoon, they were pelted with rocks as high school and middle-school students ran through the streets. Outnumbered, the officers were forced to retreat and hold their lines, and the crowd quickly got out of control. “The moment the first bottle or the first rock is thrown first, or the first officer is assaulted, action has to be taken,” said Jon Shane, associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “And it has to be swift, and it has to be firm.” Much of the crowd had already moved downtown by the time enough police had arrived to make arrests.

Overall, the problem seems to be that police were too passive, an ironic situation given that the protests were related to overly aggressive tactics officers have taken in other circumstances.

The Baltimore Police Department has in recent years sought to tone down aggression. A comprehensive retraining in the late 2000s connected Baltimore cops with young people in the city, while the top brass has warned officers repeatedly in recent months not to overstep behavioral bounds. “In past years, had there been riots like this there isn’t any question there would have been many hundreds of arrests,” said Adam Walinsky, a onetime advisor to former Attorney General Robert Kennedy who led Baltimore’s program to retrain its city police from 2007 to 2012. But with tight police oversight, Walinsky added, “what are they supposed to do?”

MORE: Baltimore Mom Explains Why She Smacked Son at Riot

It didn’t help that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake gave mixed signals in the days before the riots. The police were instructed “to do everything they could to make sure the protestors were able to exercise their right to free speech. It’s a very delicate balancing act,” Rawlings-Blake said, adding, “we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well.” She later walked back her comments, and expressed outrage that property was being looted. But much of officers’ restraint can be attributed to the appearance of hesitancy at higher levels, critics say.

Still, the police department’s tepid response to the first hour and a half of violence may have actually saved lives. Years of close training meant that despite all the police injuries, no police fired on the crowd, and no protestors were killed. “What I was impressed with is when they had bricks thrown at them, the police officers held their fire,” said Ret. General Russel L. Honoré, who led operations and brought calm to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. “The police showed extraordinary restraint.”

Compared with the Los Angeles riots of 1992, when 53 people were killed, or the Baltimore riots of 1968 when more than 600 were injured, the unrest has so far been relatively tame. “Police have been really great example of being reserved of not doing some of the things we’ve seen in other cities,” said Franklin. “They are really doing their best not to make things worse by being overly aggressive.”

After the showdown at Mondawmin Mall, the west Baltimore kids were joined by adults who burned buildings and looted on their way downtown. By Tuesday morning, 19 police officers had been injured, 15 buildings and 144 cars were set on fire, and more than 200 people had been arrested. For millions at home watching eerie scenes of looting and night fires on television, the violence looked similar to the riots that unfolded in Ferguson last year. Unlike Ferguson, though, there were no rubber bullets at Mondawmin Mall, assault rifles or fleets of heavily armored vehicles. In the first hour and a half of the riots, there was just a hapless group of Baltimore police officers, struggling to contain a crowd that was too big, and too unpredictable.

In a larger sense, the decisions police made on Baltimore’s streets yesterday don’t matter much. It’s the long game of improving police community relations that counts. Many have urged the Justice Department to provide more funding for police training and special programs. “This problem didn’t start last night or last week or when Freddie Gray got killed,” said Walinsky, the Baltimore police reformer. “Once a riot starts, it’s a little late.”

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