What started last week as peaceful protests over the death of Freddie Grey swiftly descended into chaos Monday afternoon in Baltimore.
“In situations like Ferguson and like Baltimore now, the number one concern should always be protecting lives. I would argue [police] met the single most important criterion — nobody died,” Gary Cordner, a former Maryland police chief and criminal justice professor, told Business Insider.
That wasn’t the case in Ferguson, Missouri. A 20-year-old man named Deandre Joshua died there after being shot in the head and set on fire inside his car. Riots and protests shook Ferguson after a federal grand jury declined to indict the police officer responsible for shooting and killing Michael Brown, an unarmed, 18-year-old black man.
Even before the demonstrations in Baltimore turned violent, there were parallels to Ferguson. Grey’s death, while less clear than Brown’s, occurred as a a result of an injury he sustained in police custody that partially severed his spine. Both Brown and Grey were young black men living in impoverished corners of America, who died at the hands of police. Both of their death also sparked outrage in their communities.
In an 8 p.m. press conference Monday night (which some feel came too late), Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she had worked with police to make sure protesters could exercise their right to free speech. Later on CNN, she also explained she hadn’t wanted Baltimore to turn into a “military state.”
To contain the violent protests after Brown’s death, Ferguson cops used tear gas on peaceful protesters, walked police dogs into the streets, and immediately brought out their military gear. All brought harsh criticism back to the department and city. As a reaction to the handling of Ferguson’s protests, Rawlings-Blake may have tempered her police response.
“It’s a very delicate balance,” Cordner noted. “[Not waiting] may have deterred the riots. But it may also have deterred peaceful protest — which is Unamerican. That’s not how we do things. And it also could have made a lot of people even madder.”
Baltimore police showed an appropriate escalation of force, according to Chuck Drago, a former police chief in Florida with over 30 years of experience in law enforcement and government. It’s important, however, to look closely at the reasons for initially showing restraint.
“If [city leaders] made the call for strategic reasons, if they decided they didn’t want to provoke or incite the community by not putting up a big show of force, that’s a legitimate logical decision in my opinion,” he explained to Business Insider. “If they did it because they didn’t want to look like Ferguson, that’s a failure.”
Rawlings-Blake eventually deferred to Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who called in the National Guard as a “last resort.” Troops deployed into the city Tuesday morning for the first time since 1968, when riots shook the same neighbourhoods following Martin Luther King’s assassination.
The task of putting an end to riots is inherently tense, as officers must rein in crowds that already resent the police, especially in a city like Baltimore rife with poverty, racial tension, and crime.
Instead of approaching the situation with force, cities should let crowds know they’re committed to listening to their grievances, Steve Zeidman, a CUNY law professor and police reform advocate, told Business Insider.
“The way to address this is to think about what it is that people are most upset about and fix that, instead of bringing in the National Guard,” he said.
Officers’ jobs are also easier when they have good relationships with the community, Drago acknowledged.
“[The riots] are certainly a symptom of a bad relationship.” he said. “If cities and police departments — I mean Baltimore, Ferguson, New York, everywhere — if they aren’t watching this and taking some action, then we are all doomed.”
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