Baltimore: Police Failure; Murder Rate Spikes, Report Blasts Police for Mismanaging Gray Riots

The homicide rate in Baltimore has hit a record-high as of this past weekend. As of Tuesday the city has seen 305 homicides for the year, the Baltimore Sun reports.

The city’s current per capita homicide rate is 48.97 per 100,000 residents. It has officially broken the 1993 record of 48.77 per 100,000 residents. In comparison, New York City officials estimate that the per capita rate at the end of the year will be just 4 per 100,000 — twelve times lower than Baltimore’s rate.

Meanwhile, a report by the Police Executive Research Forum that analyzed the Baltimore Police Department’s response to the riots earlier this year is scheduled to be released on Monday. The report, entitled “Lessons Learned from the 2015 Civil Unrest in Baltimore,” expanded on several shortcomings, as well as recommendations, regarding the way the police handled the riots.

The Report

One of the criticisms in PERF’s report was poor planning on the part of the Baltimore Police Department. Despite warnings of potential protests a week before the unrest began, the department did not develop a strategy. The Baltimore Police Department uses the National Incident Management System (NIMS), which aids police departments that use federal funding in responding to crises and riots of all kinds that call for an emergency response. The report describes the way agencies that use NIMS are supposed to develop plans in situations like the Freddie Gray unrest:

A key component of NIMS calls for the development of an “Incident Action Plan” (IAP) for each critical incident. The IAP is a document that includes all the information needed to maintain an orderly, effective response — such as names and contact information for police leaders and others who play key roles, assignments and duties of each official, logistical information regarding personnel and resources that are assigned to the response, etc.

However, the Baltimore PD failed to create an IAP. Instead, they used an operational plan, which was not only vague but also did not account for the riots lasting for several days. In addition, many commanders and patrol officers were not familiar with the plan, which resulted in poor execution.

In a separate criticism, the report stated officers were not only unprepared regarding the operational plan, but many of them also reported that they had never received proper training for handling riots and mass protests. A third problem, according to the report, was that officers were not trained in certain terminology that was used in orders they received; this led to confusion when trying to follow these orders.

In addition to a lack of adequate training, the department lacked the proper resources to handle a riot. The report cited that the BPD’s helmets and shields were not sturdy enough to withstand such a demonstration and that their protective suits and gas masks were not “advanced riot gear.”

The report also noted several mishaps in relation to the department’s Command Center, one of which stemmed directly from the lack of specifics in the operational plan. Confusion existed regarding who, per the operational plan, was the Incident Commander because roles changed throughout the period of unrest.

Physically, the Command Center, which was located at the BPD’s headquarters, also created problems. The room, called the Watch Center, only holds between 30 and 40 people. However, sometimes up to 100 people were in the room during the riots. The excessive noise contributed to confusion and chaos in the room. In addition, the BPD did not have computers at their headquarters to accommodate personnel working at the Command Center.

Among other criticisms in the report were unclear arrest policies, a lack of equipment, issues regarding mutual aid and the role of the National Guard. The report followed its criticisms with a list of 56 recommendations.

Lack of Experience

According to Baltimore Police Commissioner Davis, the department just “didn’t have those experiences under [its] belt” to handle such a situation. The city hadn’t seen such unrest since 1968 following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, so the department was not equipped properly.

However, he said, “We do now and we’re better prepared.”

Davis’s assessment that the city didn’t have the experience to handle such a situation is legitimate, according to the report, which states: “Many of the biggest challenges and setbacks cited above occurred at the beginning of the civil unrest period, and on April 25 and 27 in particular. Later, the Police Department improved dramatically in many facets of its response.”

Further, the report stressed that the criticisms should not overshadow the Baltimore Police Department’s efforts during the unrest, especially considering their lack of experience:

The courage under pressure of countless BPD officers and supervisors should not be lost amid the critiques found in this assessment. Members of the department were asked to do a very difficult job under stressful circumstances with little rest between work assignments, and they performed admirably under these circumstances.

Following the report, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the city has only continued moving forward.

“We’ve taken steps to ensure that Baltimore won’t see another period of unrest like we had in April,” she said. “It is our goal that something like that never happens again.”

The city has already began implementing many of the suggestions the report made, according to Rawlings-Blake and Davis, who both said they were not surprised by the report’s findings and that the city has been proactive in making much-needed changes.

“The Mayor appreciates the thoughtful analysis and the constructive points on how we can improve our systems, our communications and our preparations,” a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, Howard Libit, said. “The Mayor has made it clear that neither she nor Commissioner Davis have been waiting for the final report to make necessary changes. Throughout the summer, they have been outlining the many steps that have been taken which address and correct the issues raised in this report.”

National Impact

Both the riots and the response by police in April emphasized the need for all cities to be prepared for the possibility of such events occurring, according to the report. Although the BPD was not as prepared as they could have been because they did not expect to have to address riots of that magnitude, what happened in April has set the precedent for how all agencies should be prepared. “This level of unrest and violence was not expected by city officials or the police department,” the report states, “but cities and police agencies should strive to be prepared for worst-case scenarios.”

PERF’s executive director Chuck Wexler also explained why the report’s conclusions apply to police departments all across the country. Most other cities would not have been well-prepared or trained for such riots either simply because they haven’t been common.

“If you look at what’s gone on in this country, most American cities have not faced riot conditions for 20, 30 years,” Wexler explained, “so when a city thinks about, ‘Where am I going to invest my resources’ it hasn’t been in preparation for a major disturbance.”

However, given the lasting impacts of the riots, other cities around the country should be paying attention. Seven months after the riots ended, the city is still reeling from effects such as a strained relationship with police (which has always plagued the city but was exacerbated following the riots), the loss of businesses that were burned or looted and a significant increase in homicides.

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