Confusion, Leadership Vacuum Fueled Freddie Gray Unrest
Investigative journalists Luke Broadwater and Jayne Miller say documents reveal conflict among city officials in the aftermath of the killing of Freddie Gray
STEPHEN JANIS, TRNN: Hello, my name is Stephen Janis. I’m a reporter for the Real News Network in Baltimore.
It’s a sequence of events almost as controversial as the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. I’m talking about the unrest that erupted across Baltimore during the protest over Gray’s death and the city response to it. Critics say the mayor and police commissioner were too reactive, and that blunders like confronting teens at a closed mall the day of Gray’s funeral only precipitated the crisis. Meanwhile city officials point to the fact that no one was killed during what they described as a very fluid situation for which no one could prepare.
What’s the truth, and what could have been done? And who, if anyone, should be held accountable? That’s the question my next guest will help us answer, a veritable Baltimore media dream team.
Luke Broadwater is the investigative reporter for the Baltimore Sun who has won too many awards to mention, whose coverage of City Hall and policing has been to say the least definitive. Also joining me is Jayne Miller, investigative reporter for Channel 11. She too has won too many awards to mention, but her work–her investigative work on TV is arguably the best on local TV. Thank you both for joining us, I appreciate it.
So you’ve both done stories on these emails. I just want to jump to that right away. I’ll start with you, Jayne. What was your impression of the emails? What did you learn from them?
JAYNE MILLER: I–well, first of all we learned that there was–and Luke and I both know this because we both got batches of them in answer to a public information request for communications that were going on between city officials and state officials and education officials, and police–.
JANIS: Right, during the time of the–yeah.
MILLER: During April 25, 26, 27 and beyond, over the sequence of events that happened after the death of Freddie Gray.
So my impression when we kind of, we first kind of breezed through them, because we had to get on the air. But then when we read them more carefully, is I wasn’t surprised by anything. I think it’s very clear that no, was everybody prepared for what happened on the 27th of April, no. Should they have been? My opinion, I don’t know how they could have been, honestly. Most people that are in policing today were not alive, or at least weren’t adults in 1968, so they don’t remember the riots of that time. In California they might remember what happened in the Rodney King situation.
But since–so the emails show exactly what we already knew. And that is that there was confusion. There was chaotic decision making. There were certain people that felt left out of the loop. Key city officials that were like hey, what about me, and why don’t we know what’s going on? And I think that that’s what was conveyed.
The critical question is, to me, is that there was a lot of stuff that was withheld, based on deliberative process, and the give and take, quote-unquote, give and take of decision making.
JANIS: Not surprising.
MILLER: And whether that sheds any further light on decisions that were made or weren’t made, we’ll never know at this point because we don’t have them in front of us.
JANIS: Luke, you highlighted a email from the director of the Department of Transportation, right, that was–tell us about that and what you kind of concluded from that.
LUKE BROADWATER: Right. So right around 3:00 when buses are being shut down at Mondawmin, when the subway’s being closed down, you have the city’s head of transportation writing to the police department saying we don’t know what’s going on, clue us in here. And they basically tell them to check their Twitter feed.
JANIS: Are you serious?
BROADWATER: He’s upset about this and he calls it unacceptable, and says the people, the city are looking to the administration for answers and we can’t provide any. So there you have a top–that’s one example of a top city official who felt like there wasn’t a coordinated response, or there wasn’t good communication at the time.
That said, as Jayne points out, everything was happening so quickly. And I, and–you know, we know of at 3:00 the unrest really begins around Mondawmin and by 6:30 PM the mayor has called the governor to ask for the National Guard. So that’s sort of a three and a half hour window.
JANIS: I mean, a lot of the blame has been pointed to what happened at Mondawmin. That the subway system was closed–is there any sort of sense that A, someone was in charge and calling those shots, and B, someone was actually like, knew what was going on in total, so that they could respond to it? Was there anything in those emails?
MILLER: Well, before the release of this batch of emails we did a story the week before on some timeline information that we got from the mass transit administration, which is the transit agency that was involved on the 27th. And they’re very involved because Mondawmin Mall in Northwest Baltimore is a major transit stop, and the subway runs through there. So we really focused in that story, because there was information that we hadn’t seen before, on what was revealed to us. And that is, which I believe also the Baltimore Sun had an email along the same line, in terms of the school situation.
So what we now know is that at 1:30 on the afternoon of the 27th with Frederick Douglass High School sitting right across the mall, right across from Mondawmin Mall, and right up the street from Freddie Gray’s funeral, that there was a request by the MTA to stagger dismissal times so that you didn’t have all these kids coming out of school at the same time, feeding into Mondawmin Mall area and that transit stop.
As the former police commissioner Anthony Batts told me in an interview as part of that story we were doing, he said that transit stop can be chaotic on a good day, because you have all these kids coming through there, high school kids from different high schools. And you know how that gets to be, like, rivalry going on, and–.
JANIS: Yeah. I mean, we did the story about how they were arresting people there before this all happened.
MILLER: Correct. And you’ve got some tension that goes on on an ordinary day.
The second key decisions that were revealed in that timeline piece had to do with the question everybody wanted to know, is who shut down the buses. Because that’s what happened. And according to the timeline information–so at the very same time that schools were dismissing, that the high school was dismissing and all these kids were flowing out of the high school, you–there was a decision made, it appears by the Baltimore Police Department, to–.
Well, one was kind of by default. Because the police set up what’s called a skirmish line which closed the main bus loop at the transit stop. Then there were actual decisions made by the police department according to the timeline we had to shut down an intersection nearby which also prevented buses from getting in there. Bottom line was you had two things happening at the same time. You had all these kids come–actually three. All these kids coming out of high school. Buses now disrupted so they couldn’t get out of there. And they’re met by a pretty significant number of riot-clad cops. Riot gear-clad cops.
So I’ve said since we did that piece and since we worked on that piece that if anyone is going to do an outside, independent review of the decisions that were made and that would be helpful for anyone around the country that may have to deal with unrest, is what was the most provocative thing that happened that day? Was it that they didn’t stagger dismissal? Was it that you didn’t stagger dismissal and then put all those cops there at the same time so that there was kind of a confrontational atmosphere? And then what role did the transportation play in? All of this was going on in a 90-minute period. From 1:30 until 3:00 PM in the afternoon.
And then kind of the part two of that is by shutting down the buses around the Mondawmin area, did you then–kind of the unintended consequence of that is to force people south, which of course goes to Penn North. Which is where the burning started and the looting, et cetera, et cetera.
JANIS: So Luke, it struck me from reading your story that the mayor didn’t have a very strong voice in a lot of what was going on. What was your take on how involved the mayor was in sort of the day-to-day–and sort of even having the big picture, or being in charge?
BROADWATER: Well, I think that when the–one, I don’t think that they thought this was going to happen at this level on that day. I think they were caught a little by surprise. The mayor had a regularly scheduled meeting with the CEO of the schools at 3:00, right as Mondawmin is kicking off, right. She then takes another meeting with [children] at 4:30 PM as Penn and North is blowing up, and they don’t go to BPD headquarters till 5:00 to start really figuring out what to do.
I think then she starts presiding over these meetings at that point, but you have two hours there where basically the police commissioner is running the show. And he is supposed to be commanding his troops and putting them in the right spots, and handling the chaos.
JANIS: Was there any indication that the mayor was interested, or was the mayor engaged at that point? Or was the mayor just sort of going about business as usual, in your–from what you can see. I know you can’t see everything.
BROADWATER: Right. So there’s nothing in the emails that says this, right, because the last email we get where it seems to be that they’re making decisions about things is at 4:00, where Kalliope Parthemos, the mayor’s chief of staff, writes to somebody and says the National Guard is only after a situation of emergency has been declared. A state of emergency.
We do know from interviews that the mayor during that 4:30 meeting was taking calls, and also activated the emergency operations center. So she’s still doing her daily scheduled routine, but they’re starting to realize, whoa, this is getting bigger than what we thought it would be.
JANIS: And one of the things that people talked about was that the mayor, though, did not make an appearance or really wasn’t present in this crisis. I mean, is that a fair characterization of what happened? And was she–.
MILLER: I think it was–when we saw her publicly that night?
MILLER: I don’t know–.
JANIS: It was like, 9:00, was it 8:00 PM?
MILLER: Yeah, it was–yeah, some time–8:00 PM, something like that.
I, you know, I think just generally what I’ve said to people–I’m older than a lot of my colleagues. You know, since 9/11, what have we prepared law enforcement to do? Fight al-Qaeda, right, not high schoolers with rocks. So this happens. Should they have known, because of Saturday, we had some scattered violence on Saturday and looting, et cetera, after a big protest on the 25th. Sure. But they’re not equipped to handle non-lethal confrontation like they would be. They’re equipped, loaded for [bear], so to speak. They’re not loaded for kids start throwing rocks.
Clearly from everything that has been said–and I don’t know that I saw anything in the emails that reinforces this. But I know what has been said publicly by the former police commissioner Batts, by Kevin Davis the interim police commissioner now in Baltimore, by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. They did not want a repeat of Ferguson. Those pictures, those searing pictures in Ferguson of these heavily militarized-looking cops mixing it up with demonstrators, protesters, whatever, and it just–it was, it looked violent. It looked–it was graphic, it was violent.
JANIS: Well, you had a guy pointing a loaded gun at the protesters.
MILLER: Exactly. And so there was definitely, definitely a [cold] mantra that day of don’t do that.
Now, the question is, so short of that what do you do? I mean, can you imagine–okay, so I’m old enough to very clearly remember Kent State. Okay? And the images of the National Guard shooting and killing college students. Okay? So can you imagine where we would be today if, God forbid, you know, some high school, one two or three high school kids had been shot? You know? I mean, just–can you imagine? We would–I don’t know where we would be. That is kind of the–just that it’s such a horrible thought. Because those kids are not armed. They’re throwing rocks.
JANIS: That’s one of the arguments they made. You know–.
MILLER: Armed in the sense of a weapon. Of, you know, like could shoot the cop. Clearly a rock could be a weapon. But they were not–they were not armed with guns.
JANIS: One of the points of criticism has been that the mayor didn’t communicate with Hogan soon enough, and didn’t call in the National Guard, and then Hogan didn’t want to lift the curfew. What did you see from, you know, your reporting in terms of that relationship? Was there tension, or were they working together, or was it something–.
BROADWATER: Yeah, so the only email that I saw about that in this batch was when deciding to lift the curfew. The mayor had wanted to lift it a couple days earlier, and the governor was adamantly opposed to that. Eventually the mayor ended up agreeing with the governor and didn’t lift the curfew.
Everything else we know about the tension between them we know from interviews, where [inaud.] public statements.
JANIS: Where like, [Ken Harris] or her spokesman–.
BROADWATER: Right. So I mean, the governor did go out there that night and said when she finally called and–.
MILLER: [Inaud.] didn’t help.
BROADWATER: Right. There is an email from the U.S. Conference of Mayors about that, and they write in saying, I’m seething right now. Basically the governor threw the mayor under the bus during this.
In their view they felt they acted very quickly. In the governor’s view they didn’t act quick enough. So there’s–.
JANIS: And Ken Harris called it, like, bush league, or something. He said that Hogan’s behavior was–.
BROADWATER: Kevin Harris–he called it amateur.
JANIS: Kevin Harris–I’m sorry. The mayor’s spokesman said it was–.
BROADWATER: A rookie move is what he said.
JANIS: A rookie move, right.
MILLER: I think the other thing that we all have to keep in mind is that in situations like this, personalities play such a key role. And the individual personalities involved in this situation are very different. Hogan is, comes from a business background. He’s a very much kind of let’s get it done, do it now kind of guy. And very straightforward. He was very present during that situation with making decisions from the basis of the state.
Stephanie is a quieter–the mayor is a quieter–.
JANIS: Deliberate, I guess.
MILLER: Deliberate. Very deliberate. All of the different individuals involved in this have different personalities. And sometimes–I mean, who can forget. Whether or not everybody was a George W. Bush fan everybody was in his corner a couple of days after 9/11 when he stood on the rubble with the bullhorn and said let’s roll, let’s bring it, whatever.
JANIS: Right. An iconic moment.
MILLER: Right, exactly.
JANIS: But there’s no iconic moment with the mayor. I mean, that’s the thing. I mean, where is the [optics] for the mayor when she–she showed up with an Under Armour cap on, or something.
MILLER: And that’s what you want to–well, you just take–right. Right. You have, you have all of these kind of iconic moments. You’ve got on May 1, you’ve got this state’s attorney in Baltimore City that’s only been in office six months that stands on the steps and, and it becomes a–and catapults to national profile because of the personality of it. That’s what is missing in Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s portfolio.
JANIS: Well, and the only thing–I would say the most iconic moment for the mayor, I don’t know if you would agree with me, was when she held that press conference right around, right shortly after the verdict, and walked out without taking questions in front of the entire national press corps. I mean, they have her on video.
I mean, let’s talk about consequences. I mean, what is the political takeaway for the mayor? I mean, to me she seems, when I watch her, she seems like nothing really happened. I mean, she–like you said, she’s very deliberate. And she seems to be almost like, okay, we’re still making progress. What do you think is going to–is there going to be fallout for her in this?
BROADWATER: There’s obviously definitely political fallout for her. Jayne brings up George W. Bush, and the first image of him on 9/11 is him reading to the kids and not knowing what to do, right? Then he comes back two days later and has that iconic–.
MILLER: Oh, yeah. And then everybody remembers that.
BROADWATER: And so the mayor has been branded with that first scene, right, with Governor Hogan’s [comments]. And I’m not sure if she has done something publicly, or did something publicly in that moment to recapture that, I guess gravitas is the word. And clearly you’re seeing a lot of people now challenging her, thinking about challenging her for mayor. Sheila Dixon comes to mind. She’s running. A lot of people had written her off before this and I think now they’re saying Sheila can win. So it’s definitely weakened her politically, there’s no doubt about that.
JANIS: I guess I’m just struck mostly by the fact that there doesn’t seem to be any sort of transformative thinking in terms of City Hall. I mean, I see some minor proposals rolling out. But Jayne, do you see–do you think from–both of you guys have been at City Hall a lot. Do you see like, where she’s digested what happened as a leader, or at all changed her style in the responses? Because it would be such a transformative moment.
MILLER: I mean, what she has said most recently a lot is that look, you know, nobody died. Nobody was killed. We didn’t have high school students being shot. We didn’t have people being run over with armored vehicles or anything like that. And I think–I heard her say, a quote from her the other other day that it only lasted a couple of hours, as opposed to days or weeks. And so I think she’s trying to capitalize on–that’s true. It did only last a couple of hours, and they were ugly scenes, for sure. But it wasn’t a protracted period of unrest. And so I think she’s trying to kind of get that message across.
The problem is that the conditions in those communities aren’t going to change overnight, if at all. I mean, we’ve been waiting for decades, and–.
JANIS: Well there’s no sweeping policy proposals that are coming out of City Hall where she’s saying you know what, we’ve been neglecting–because it’s almost like she doesn’t want to acknowledge that she was part of the problem. If she did something sweeping–.
MILLER: Correct. Well, and that [you have] been generations of being part of the problem. That’s right. Of political leadership, correct.
JANIS: Right. Of her family. Of her–she was on the council since 1995. And that’s the thing that struck me as the strangest thing. Like, you’d think there’d be all these sweeping proposals. But shortly after that she didn’t even have–want to put city funding towards the 3,000 unfilled summer job slots. I mean, the optics are strange. I mean, Luke, do you think the mayor has anything that she’s going to unveil? Or do you see any sort of shifts in City Hall in terms of the way they’re doing business?
BROADWATER: Not that I know of. They did endorse a federal program which I think could–or some people think could have some impact there, which is these housing, more housing vouchers for people to move.
That’s not what the mayor necessarily wants. She wants people to come to Baltimore. This idea that we’re going to give people money from West Baltimore to move to the counties is maybe not the message she wants. But the feds seem to think that’s one way you can improve, is to actually have people leave.
JANIS: Right. Listen, we’re a little bit over time. But listen, I appreciate–you both have been fascinating to talk to. I hope we can have you back. Luke Broadwater from the Baltimore Sun, thank you for coming.
BROADWATER: Thank you.
JANIS: Jayne Miller from WBAL TV. Thank you for coming, appreciate it.
MILLER: Thanks for having us, Stephen, very much.
JANIS: My name is Stephen Janis and I’m a reporter for the Real News Network in Baltimore. Thank you.
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