*Editor’s Note: A longer version of this article originally appeared in DomPrep Journal.*
By Anthony S. Mangeri, MPA, CEM, EMT, faculty member, Emergency and Disaster Management Program at American Military University
It is not unlawful for a group to assemble to express their views. It is actually a right of every citizen, and the police are here to protect that right. This was one of many messages provided by Baltimore Police Lt. Charles Thompson at the June 23, 2015 meeting of the Baltimore City Local Emergency Planning Committee. “We have to protect the people’s right to protest,” said Thompson. He added that, as public safety officials, law enforcement officers must gear their response to what is needed without overdoing it or neglecting their responsibilities. However, finding this balance can be challenging.
Challenges of Modern-Day Protests
Protests in modern society are very different from even a decade ago. Emergency planners and public safety leaders have to understand that protests are not always locally driven and sponsored. In addition, protesters and extremists are not always from the community and not all are there to work with protest leaders to understand the issues and activities of the protesters.
Public safety has an interpretative role to assess and protect protesters with legitimate concerns and those with intent to insight riots. Law enforcement must monitor peaceful protests to find those who would do harm and incite violence. Understanding the issues and protesters’ lawful activities provides police with information not only to protect the protestors but also to step in and arrest those who attempt to hijack a peaceful protest for unlawful and often violent purposes.
Special events such as protests need to have strategic plans in place to address the potential for violence and unlawful acts. Although Baltimore had developed plans for special events, dignitary visits, and civil unrest, the civil unrest plans in place were not adequate to address the magnitude or rapid onset of the incident.
Baltimore Officials Discuss Response to Civil Unrest
The June meeting of the Baltimore City Local Emergency Planning Committee was the committee’s first meeting following the civil unrest, which occurred on April 25-27, 2015. The panel discussion dominated the meeting, as Baltimore Emergency Management and Baltimore City Police officials openly discussed the event and the related critical response issues.
Emergency Management Director Robert Maloney stated that what he witnessed from the men and women who work for the city was nothing short of heroic. Police, fire, public works, 911 operators, and all the personnel worked hard to protect the community and provide needed services. He cited the value of agencies working together to address the fire at CVS, which was prominently displayed by national media outlets. Less publicized was the fact that the fire also was a concern for the senior apartment building only yards away.
One of the greatest successes from the response to the riots was the ability of police and fire departments to establish a unified command. Police protected firefighters as they worked to suppress the fire. At one point, when rioters attempted to sever the hose line that provided firefighters with much needed water, police quickly interceded so firefighters could continue suppression operations.
“If the men and women of the police and fire department had not worked together, then the situation would have become much worse,” said Maloney.
Understanding the Chain of Events in Baltimore
Many people may not be aware that there has been a steady escalation of protests in Baltimore since the fall of 2014. In November, there were protests in response to the grand jury decision not to indict a Ferguson, Missouri police officer in the fatal shooting of an African American teenager.
The death of Freddie Gray on April 19, who died from injuries while in police custody, led to more protests. For the most part, the protests in the city up to that date were peaceful. However, on Saturday, April 25, Baltimore police officers began to see a shift in the protests.
As the protestors peacefully marched to City Hall, officers noticed a portion of the group break off, begin acting more frantic, and move toward Camden Yards. This is where violence erupted and law enforcement officers reported damage to police vehicles and some area businesses.
During the LEPC briefing, Thompson stated that police reported seeing cards strewn on the ground. Anarchist literally left its calling cards in the streets and sidewalks near Camden Street. The anarchist movement is a loosely configured group that has been around for hundreds of years. According to the FBI, “Anarchism is a belief that society should have no government, laws, police, or any other authority.”
Police believe the group may have been embedded in the protests and waited until it was large enough to act with anonymity. When an event reaches a large-enough size, the group triggers violence and moves out before they can be arrested.
Then on Monday, April 27, as mourners attended the viewing for Freddie Gray, flyers were passed around stating that a local school was calling for a “purge” to begin after school. The term “purge” is believed to be in reference to a popular 2013 movie, where all crime is legal for a 12-hour period. There also were threats against police officers in the city.
At about 3:15 p.m. on April 27, riots did break out in the area of Mondawmin Mall. Rioters began to bombard police officers with rocks, bricks, concrete, and other items. Several police officers were seriously injured in the attack. Rioting and looting in the area continued for hours.
According to officials at the LEPC briefing, rioters looted, damaged, or destroyed over 300 stores. Two methadone clinics and 27 pharmacies reportedly were looted, resulting in the theft of 175,000 doses of prescription medications. Some businesses, such as the CVS, were set ablaze. In addition to store damage, there were 164 vehicle fires reported during the incident, according to Maloney.
Thompson also emphasized that no police officer, firefighter, protester, or rioter was killed. “It was intense but short in duration,” said Thompson. More than 400 rioters were arrested on that Monday. However, incidents of violence and looting diminished throughout the evening with sporadic incidents until early Tuesday morning.
Maloney was quick to point out that the citizens played a huge role in helping manage the incident and bring the city back to calm. “The good people stepped up and said we are not going to tolerate this,” he said.
Developing a Strategy Before the Next Event
Emergency planners should consider many key points in developing a community civil unrest strategy. In addition to protecting protestors and residents as well as responding to calls for service, emergency managers also must develop strategies to protect infrastructure that is critical to preserving the community. Communities with gun shops, hobby stores, and possibly even large hardware stores need to be secured to prevent them from being used against the community or authorities.
In Baltimore, 300 National Guardsmen were deployed along with district police who knew the area. These taskforces worked to restore the area to normal as quickly as possible. Local police officers from each district were partnered with the Guardsmen to ensure knowledge of the area, its residents, and specific concerns.
Emergency planners need to develop response plans for each large-scale event. Protests have the potential to be hijacked by individuals or groups whose intent is violent and unlawful. Even protest organizers have a role in managing those in their group to ensure that their First Amendment right to assembly and free speech is not impeded by violence.
Emergency management brings organization and structure to a crisis. A civil unrest plan needs to include information regarding command and management. Defining the Incident Command Structure for such events is essential for organization. It also is valuable for dictating roles and responsibilities for all involved so that each agency can develop training and exercises to ensure capabilities to manage the event and resources to be deployed.
Beginning the Recovery Process Before the Sun Rises
In disaster response and recovery, continuity of operations—or the ability to continue essential services in times of crisis—is a critical role for emergency management. City emergency management officials reported that no hospital system broke down or went out of service. Although there were delays, 911 calls were answered based on a priority system agreed to by police and fire leadership. Public transportation in non-impacted areas continued throughout the night.
Recovery operations have the ability to set the tone for how the community interprets the incident and how leaders are perceived. Maloney knew that restoring city systems was essential to provide the residents and visitors stability. He wanted to be sure that public transportation citywide would be back in service that morning, so people could go back to work and residents would have an indicator that the community was getting back to normal quickly.
Maloney said that, when individuals in the community were cleaning the streets in the middle of the night, bus drivers were working, and nurses were attending patients at hospitals, he felt a sense of relief: “The people stopped it. The people said ‘enough.’ We don’t want this.”
Learning from Baltimore
Protests are highly charged special events. Emergency management professionals and community leaders alike can learn much from the response to the Baltimore City riots. When possible, cities have to take the time to meet with protest organizers and leaders to plan for peaceful protests. Police departments must develop the capability to identify those who would cause harm and remove them from peaceful protests.
Emergency managers bring structure and organization to a crisis. Emergency plans must define the incident command and management structure and provide mutual aid strategies for all contingencies. As Director Maloney pointed out, do not underestimate the value and capabilities of the community to be part of any recovery operations. People tend to support what they help create. Community involvement prior to any emergency should be part of all emergency management strategies.
© Reprinted with permission from IMR Group Inc. Originally published in full in the DomPrep Journal (http://www.domesticpreparedness.com/pub/docs/DPJJune15.pdf).
About the Author: Anthony S. Mangeri, MPA, CPM, CEM, is the director of strategic relations for fire services and emergency management and is on the faculty of the American Public University System’s School of Security and Global Studies. He has more than 30 years of experience in emergency management and public safety. He is a member of the ASIS Fire and Life Safety Council. During the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, he served as operations chief at the New Jersey Emergency Operations Center, coordinating that state’s response to the passenger-aircraft crashes into the World Trade Center.