Baltimore riots report: Police must train for 'large-scale critical incidents'

The long-term challenge confronting police departments – and not just in Baltimore after the Freddie Gray riots – is how to ensure that officers are ready for demonstrations that turn violent.

Matt Rourke/AP/File
On April 28, 2015, a protester faces police enforcing a curfew in Baltimore. A line of police behind riot shields hurled smoke grenades and fired pepper balls at dozens of protesters.

A report by a reputable law enforcement think tank not only found "major shortcomings" in how Baltimore police responded to riots in the city in April, but also suggested how other police departments can learn from Baltimore's mistakes.

The Baltimore Police Department contracted the Police Executive Research Forum, in Washington, to conduct the review. PERF's findings were detailed in a 79-page report, released Monday.

While the review concerns how BPD responded to civil unrest in Baltimore, the report also finds lessons with "national implications" from the death of Freddie Gray, a young black man who incurred fatal injuries while in police custody, and its fallout.

"Other police agencies across the country would be well-advised to check that they have kept up with training their officers and otherwise preparing for large-scale critical incidents, such as demonstrations that turn violent," the report reads.

The April riots marked the worst unrest that Baltimore has seen since 1968, when the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. set off riots in more than 100 cities. Law enforcement experts say that many police departments, facing similar lulls, may have neglected training for such events.

The Baltimore case may now serve as a wake-up call, they say.

"I think many police departments are lax in their paying attention to the need to train for this," says Thomas Nolan, an associate professor of criminology at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass.

"What happened in Baltimore in the aftermath of Freddie Gray could have happened in any city in the United States, and any police department that doesn't give this [report] a very close look is being extremely shortsighted," he adds.

The Freddie Gray riots occurred months after similar unrest in Ferguson, Mo., where the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, a black teenager, sparked days of protests that often escalated into rioting. 

Experts say that the BPD response to the Freddie Gray riots shows that it didn’t learn the lessons from what happened in Ferguson.

Moreover, police departments around the country also seem unprepared to handle the kinds of mass protests that now seem to routinely follow such controversial incidents, they add.

The war on drugs in the 1980s and '90s and the post-9/11 war on terrorism led to a militarization of local police departments that sacrificed riot control training for a greater emphasis on counterterrorism and the drug war, says Robert Kane, a Drexel University criminologist and coauthor of "Jammed Up: Bad Cops, Police Misconduct, and the New York City Police Department."

"If you haven't seen a particular event in a couple generations, it's easy to put that kind of training on the back burner and favor something that seems more imminent," he adds. "Did [BPD] take their eye off the ball a little bit? Perhaps."

Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation, says "many police departments" across the country reached out to various agencies – from the Ferguson and St. Louis police departments to the Missouri State Police and Missouri Highway Patrol – that worked in Ferguson during the unrest to ask what lessons they learned from the events.

"From looking at the PERF report, it seems [the BPD] could have ... benefited by talking to those police officials there about their experiences and what they learned," says Mr. Bueermann. "And maybe that happened, I don't know."

Learning from these "critical incidents" is something that law enforcement agencies do regularly, he adds. "When a critical incident happens, a thoughtful police agency reaches out, when the dust settles, to the agency that handled it. They realize that something like that could happen to them." 

For Professor Nolan, who served in the Boston Police Department for 27 years, learning from past events has had concrete benefits.

Nolan was with the department when the city was preparing to host the Democratic National Convention in 2004. The department, he says, studied the much-criticized police response to rioting during the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in 1999.

"When we saw the videos of what went on in Seattle, that got everyone's attention. People took it seriously," says Nolan.

The department spent six to eight months studying the riots, he says, splitting the department in two: Half continued the regular duties of the department (like patrolling and responding to 911 calls), while the other half prepared for the convention.

"We learned from [Seattle] and trained for a significant amount of time for what we could expect, and how to deal with unexpected," Nolan adds. "As it turned out, things went fine and the resources dedicated to the DNC weren't needed, but we went in with an overabundance of caution with a keen eye to what happened in Seattle."

The long-term challenge confronting police departments now, experts say, is how to ensure that officers are just as ready for a riot as for any other nonregular event, like a terrorist attack or mass shooting.

For many departments, cost is usually the first obstacle.

"Every generation or so we're reminded of something that's potentially catastrophic that police departments have to be able to plan for," says Dr. Kane. "[But] can police departments really afford to develop contingency plans for every kind of non-normal event?"

Nolan says the approach to the 2004 Democratic National Convention presents one possible solution. Many of the expenses for specialist training (for exercises like riot control) are costly because officers have to be pulled off their regular schedule for the training, and replaced by officers working overtime. In 2004, splitting the Boston Police Department allowed it to minimize overtime hours and make time for the training.

Ultimately, Bueermann says, police departments may have to make sacrifices in terms of which critical situations they prepare most for.

"You have to acknowledge practical realities of policing, how much money you have available and what you can spend the money on," he says.

"But the agency itself has to multitask," he adds. "People pay their taxes for public safety with the expectation that they'll be prepared for all these things."

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