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Independent review faults Baltimore police for riot response

Study commissioned by Baltimore police critiques lack of preparation and shoddy equipment

Baltimore's police response to rioting in April showed major shortcomings, including a lack of planning, murky orders and flimsy protective gear, according to an independent review released on Monday.

The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) think tank report, commissioned by Baltimore police, critiques police lapses during the protests, arson and looting sparked by the April 19 death of a black man, Freddie Gray, who died from an injury sustained in police custody.

The unrest left nearly 400 buildings damaged or destroyed and about 155 officers were injured. City officials imposed a curfew, and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan ordered in National Guard troops to restore order.

The protests followed similar actions against police for using excessive force against blacks in cities across the country — including Ferguson, Missouri, where in 2014 a white officer shot and killed unarmed black teen Michael Brown.

Riots did not erupt in every city where protests were held. But actions were staged in New York, where Staten Island native Eric Garner died after being choked by a police officer; Cleveland, Ohio, where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was gunned down near a playground; and later in Texas, where Sandra Bland died in police custody of what the police have labeled a suicide.

The protests paralleled similar cases of unrest from throughout American history, particularly the civil strife that occurred in the waning years of the Jim Crow era.

The Baltimore Police Department did not have an adequate plan for the unrest that began on April 25 downtown and flared two days later into rioting, the review said.

Officers lacked direction about when they should carry out arrests and who could order them. Orders were unclear, with patrol officers telling PERF that they were told "not to engage" or "stand by."

Some officers interpreted those orders as meaning "stand down." Others said they heard orders to "hold the line," the review said.

Officers lacked adequate training and equipment, such as advanced riot gear and working gas masks. "BPD helmets and shields were not sturdy enough, cracking when they were hit by rocks thrown by rioters," it said.

"The overall report confirmed many of our own critiques" and the department had already begun to address areas of concern, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, who was joined by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said at a Monday news conference.

About $2 million has been spent on equipment, 1,500 officers have undergone riot training and commanders will have more autonomy to order arrests, Davis said.

During the rioting about 100 people crowded into the Watch Center, a police operations headquarters that normally held 30 or 40, the report said. The area also lacked computers.

"People who worked in the ... Center described the room as 'chaotic' and 'distracting,' and said there were many people in the room who wanted to be involved but were not vital to operations," the review said.

Violence has risen in Baltimore since the riots. Homicides have reached 300 for the year, the worst since 1999. Local observers – including former police commissioner Edward Norris – have partially attributed the rising crime rate to police dysfunction and low morale.

Six officers have been charged in Gray's death. The first trial is scheduled to start on Nov. 30.

Gray's family has been awarded a $6.4 million settlement from the city for damages.

Al Jazeera and Reuters

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