Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The Fraternal Order of Police’s scathing report, issued hours before the commissioner was fired, suggests that Batts was following guidelines from the White House’s 21st Century Policing Task Force.
Wednesday, just hours before Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake fired Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, the Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge #3, released its “After Action Review” report of what went wrong during riots in April. It reads long on blaming the mayor and Batts, who the FOP accuses of poorly coordinating police response when demonstrations turned violent on April 26.
Batts apologized in May for failing to provide better crowd-control training to the force. But his orchestration of police engagement during the disorderly events appear to be in alignment with practices endorsed by President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
The FOP, in fact, cited Obama’s policing task force as an explanation for why their review was necessary. From its report:
Recommendation 1.3 of The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing states “law enforcement agencies should establish a culture of transparency and accountability in order to build public trust and legitimacy. This will help ensure decision making is understood and in accord with stated policy.” In compliance with this recommendation, and in response to the fact that neither Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake nor Police Commissioner Anthony Batts were undertaking their own version of this best practice, Baltimore City FOP Lodge #3 finds it necessary to conduct its own review of these extraordinary events.
Here’s the full text of Recommendation 1.3, including the task force’s recommended action items:
The recommendation the FOP cited was about police misconduct, not conduct during riots and demonstrations. There is, however, a section on crowd control in the president’s task force report that the FOP must have missed. It reads:
Law enforcement agencies should create policies and procedures for policing mass demonstrations that employ a continuum of managed tactical resources that are designed to minimize the appearance of a military operation and avoid using provocative tactics and equipment that undermine civilian trust.
The task force highlights the experience of Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy during the NATO Summit demonstrations of 2012, who is credited with helping avert a full-blown riot.
Police officers refreshed “perishable” skills, such as engaging in respectful conversations with demonstrators, avoiding confrontation, and using “extraction techniques” not only on the minority of demonstrators who were behaving unlawfully (throwing rocks, etc.) but also on officers who were becoming visibly upset and at risk of losing their composure and professional demeanor.
One of the main issues that the FOP takes up with Batts’ handling of the “Baltimore uprising” is that they say that police were “told not to intervene” during the street protests, which were spurred by news that police had killed unarmed, African-American Freddie Gray. Reads the report:
Starting on Thursday, April 23, 2015 and continuing through Sunday morning April 26, 2015, Baltimore City FOP Lodge #3 President Gene Ryan received multiple calls from officers and front line supervisors who reported that they were restricted in their response to the rioting and, as a result, the situation was spiraling out of control. Additionally, officers reported that they had suffered injuries from the lack of protective riot equipment and the constraints placed on them by commanding officers.
The FOP report leans on a document from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Center for Domestic Preparedness to make the case that such passive interactions basically made the police look like punks. As quoted from the DHS manual in the FOP report:
A perceived under-response by the protestors of the community can have a dramatic impact on law enforcement operations. Protestors will view an under-response as a victory and an opportunity to increase their level of civil disorder. The community will view an under-response that allows damage to occur as a lack of leadership. The result can lead to upper management personnel being terminated.
But Chicago Police Chief Garry McCarthy took a different tack during the 2012 NATO protests, ordering his squad to display “patience and restraint, which visibly frustrated some protesters who tried to illicit an excessive response.”
When skirmishes broke out, with bottles and rocks thrown at police, the officers formed a baton-fortified phalanx to back unruly protesters up, rather than going into a ballistic, arrest-happy formation, as was seen during the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri.
“Chicago police chose to control this crowd by their physical presence rather than with chemical munitions, a decision that was made by commanders on scene,” wrote a police trainer in praise of McCarthy. Craig Futterman, a law professor at the University of Chicago and observer at the NATO protests, said, “Generally speaking, the [Chicago Police Department] seemed to exercise an extraordinary amount of restraint.”
Again, this is the event and police operation that Obama’s “21st Century Policing” task force cites as model behavior: restraint. And this is mostly what Batts asked his force to exercise, especially in the days of peaceful protests before Freddie Gray’s funeral. These rules of engagement also align closely with what the Global Justice Information Sharing Initiative, a federal advisory committee for the U.S. Attorney General, called for in its “Recommendations for First Amendment-Protected Events for State and Local Law Enforcement,” issued in 2011.
Those recommendations on police professional conduct during demonstrations state that, “The presence of law enforcement officers at an event may arouse concern. Therefore, emphasis should be made regarding the importance for officers to be courteous and respectful.” Meaning that officers should not “Harass, confront, or intimidate persons attending public gatherings or make comments about the views they express.”
Police showing up at rallies decked in military and riot gear can itself escalate otherwise peaceful protests, as acknowledged by Obama’s policing task force. But the FOP complains in its report that Baltimore police did not get more riot gear when they asked for it. In the days before violence broke out, FOP Lodge #3 President Gene Ryan said he had “multiple communications” with Commissioner Batts about orders for police to hold off on going head first into crowds with riot helmets on. Ryan lists a few complaints in this vein from members of the FOP’s focus group who were interviewed for the report:
- On April 22, 2015, officers in the Western District were ordered to leave all riot equipment behind the front desk inside the district, despite the constantly growing protests directly outside.
- On April 24, 2015, Western District Command instructed officers that helmets were to be left in cars.
- On April 26, 2015, officers were advised that helmets were approved for possession, but had to be left in the lobby of the station house.
- Members of SWAT initially wore the full-scale green tactical uniforms while positioned in front of the Western District Station House, but were shortly thereafter advised to switch to their less intimidating Class “B” uniforms.
The Law Enforcement Equipment Working Group, a committee of the “21st Century Policing Task Force,” released guidelines in May that called for more rigorous training and accountability standards before deploying this kind of gear to police. Those guidelines were produced after months of hearings and public forums, involving veteran law enforcement officials and activists. At a listening session on police policy and oversight in Cincinnati in January, Christina D. Brown, an organizer in the Black Lives Matter movement, testified before the president’s task force on how police can “reduce the potential of escalating tension” during mass demonstrations. In her testimony, she called for:
● During times of visible tension between police and communities of color, reduce and suspend enforcement of minor violations.
● Eliminate usage of military grade equipment, especially within the urban core.
● Inform law enforcement to remove riot gear attire, and to maintain neutral stance during demonstrations.
● Anticipate traffic disruptions, reroute traditional traffic, only create protest barriers when necessary for protester safety.
● Advise elected officials to deploy national guard, enforce Marshall law only in response to mass violence, not in anticipation or agitation of mass demonstration.
● When possible, identify leadership within mass demonstrations and primarily communicate through representatives, especially possibilities of arrest or deployment of force.
Again, these are precisely the tactics employed by Batts, who presided over a number of anti-police-violence demonstrations when serving as a police chief for years in California before coming to Baltimore. Of course, those kinds of protests are rarely the result of just one police incident, but rather the tipping point after a long pattern of problems plaguing a community.
Batts admitted that he foresaw a conflagration coming, but failed to prepare and train his squad in advance. The FOP doubled up on faulting him for this, albeit with a competing definition of preparation. But the police union makes no mention of the role its officers may have played in escalating violence during that turbulent period—for example, reports that police were apprehending teenagers based off rumors of a planned “purge” day of lawlessness.
In the weeks and months ahead, more reports are scheduled to be released from investigations launched by the district attorney, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the Police Executive Research Forum. Which means more finger-pointing is to be expected. Somewhere in there, police will have to come to agreement on what is really the most effective way to engage during demonstrations like these.