What Baltimore's Recent Civil Unrest Can Teach Emergency Planners

When civil unrest erupts, emergency planners must look beyond the riot itself to understand how the riots culminated, who the key antagonists were, and what can be done to improve planning and response for future outbreaks of violence. In Baltimore, officials are talking in order to accomplish all three of these goals.

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 23 June 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. Finding this balance can be challenging.

Openly Addressing a Sensitive Issue

The June meeting of the Baltimore City Local Emergency Planning Committee was the committee’s first meeting following the civil unrest, which occurred on 25 and 27 April 2015. The meeting was expected to have just a short presentation on the incident. However, the panel discussion took over the meeting, as Baltimore Emergency Management and Baltimore City Police officials openly discussed the event as well as 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. Police and fire established 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.

Special events such as protests need to have strategic plans in place to address the potential for violence and unlawful acts. Some states such as South Carolina have developed Civil Disturbance Plans to define strategy and policy and ensure state preparedness and response when incidents go beyond local resources. 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.  

Anarchy – Understanding the Chain of Events

Many people across the country watched as the peaceful protest on 27 April 2015 turned into a violent riot, which Black’s Law Dictionary defines as, “a tumultuous disturbance of the peace by three persons or more, assembling together of their own authority, with an intent mutually to assist each other against any who shall oppose.” However, most may not be aware that there has been a steady escalation of protests since the fall of 2014. Beginning in November, Baltimore has seen many 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. Since the Ferguson events, there have been numerous protests in Baltimore, with more than three events in a single day in some cases.

On 12 April 2015, Baltimore police officers arrested Freddie Gray, who passed away on 19 April 2015 from his injuries. This led to protests on 20 April 2015 at the Baltimore City Police Headquarters and City Hall. For the most part, the protests in the city up to that date were peaceful. However, on Saturday, 25 April 2015, Baltimore police officers began to see a shift in the protests. According to Baltimore Police LTC Melissa Hyatt, in a personal interview with DomPrep on 9 June 2015, 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. The anarchist movement 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 Federal Bureau of Investigation, “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, 27 April 2015, 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 27 April, 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 to 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.

Covering a Story – The Media Angle

Many government response officials felt that the national media coverage was antagonistic. News reporting has evolved into a 24/7 year-round process. However, television is not the leader in providing news to all in the community. Stories involving disasters and communities in conflict are very attractive to national media. Just like good fiction, most news stories have a victim, a rescuer, and a villain. A good emergency manager or public information officer needs to keep the storyline in mind when working with the media.     

The public’s need for information is tied to a sense of safety and security. Limited access to information may create heightened public emotions and assumptions about the incident and threats to a community’s safety. According to an October 2013 report of the Pew Research Center, approximately half of the public now receives news from online sources. Moreover, for those between the ages of 18 and 29, the amount of people getting their news from Internet sources is well over 71 percent.

Emergency management officials advised that they attempted to put outreach information on the City’s website but, as the riot unfolded in the Western District, the City website was attacked and crashed. Thompson stated that what was not covered by mass media were the scores of residents that cheered the police in the Western District as they patrolled.

Declaring a State of Emergency – Planning for the Worst

Baltimore City requested assistance through the Maryland Emergency Management Assistance Compact. However, the Compact requires a state of emergency at the local level to be activated. Many emergency management agencies maintain a standard declaration that can be amended as the crisis dictates. Some declarations are basic – designed to provide notice to the community of the emergency, and then amended as the crisis unfolds.

The city and the state were mobilizing resources throughout the incident to support emergency operations, with Baltimore City Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake formally declaring a state of emergency at approximately 5:30 p.m. on Monday, 27 April 2015. Maryland and Baltimore Emergency Operations Centers were activated, even though much of the command for the incident remained at the Police Department Command Center, according to officials.

Protests in modern society are very different from even a decade ago. Emergency planners and 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.

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.”

According to a report from local NBC affiliate WBAL TV 11, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has denied the governor’s request for a Presidential Emergency Declaration to assist with the impact of the riots – an estimated $13+ million cost for the response efforts. Even the Maryland Lottery, a major source of revenue for the state, was impacted by the civil unrest. Looters stole tens of thousands of instant lottery tickets. Local news agencies reported that the Maryland Lottery hasentified and now is working to void more than 19,300 lottery tickets stolen during the riot.

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 toentify 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.

Anthony S. Mangeri

Anthony S. Mangeri, MPA, CPM, CEM, is the chief operating officer and principal at the Mangeri Group, LLC, and president of the International Association of Emergency Managers’ (IAEM) Region 2. He currently serves on the IAEM-USA board of directors and is a board member of the Philadelphia InfraGard Members Alliance. Before the Mangeri Group, LLC, Anthony was the assistant vice president for Mitigation and Resilience at The Olson Group Ltd. Before that, he served as a town manager, where he navigated the community through the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, was responsible for local emergency preparedness, disaster recovery operations, and played a key role in the establishment of a municipal police department. Anthony also served as the New Jersey State Hazard Mitigation Officer for over a decade. During the response and recovery to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he was the operations chief at the New Jersey Emergency Operations Center, where he coordinated the state’s response efforts. Beyond his professional achievements, Anthony has committed over 35 years to serving as a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician. He holds a Master of Public Administration from Rutgers University and has completed a fellowship in Public Health Leadership in Emergency Response. As a Certified Professional Coach, Anthony continues to contribute his knowledge and expertise to the emergency management community.



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