Baltimore's handling of riots slammed as 'disaster'

Story highlights

  • City officials say they consider age of rioters in how they respond
  • Critics complain the city had warning, but police held back
  • "It's a very, very tricky tightrope to walk," commentator says in mayor's defense

(CNN)A "disaster." A failure to confront "thugs." A failure to prepare despite plenty of warning.

These are descriptions of how Baltimore handled riots Monday night, coming from local officials and some law enforcement experts.
Assessing the streets that looked like a war zone Tuesday morning, some community leaders accused Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake of letting violence take over.
"I think it was a disaster," said Delegate Jill Carter, who represents Baltimore in Maryland's House of Delegates, the lower chamber of the state legislature.
"Too much destruction was apparently allowed to happen. I mean, if they knew in advance that this was going to happen when school let out, then I'm not sure why there wasn't some effort to go into the schools, to maybe do something to hold students longer, to do something to prevent it rather than let it happen."
Baltimore has faced repeated protests over the case of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who died while in police custody.
The spark that ignited Monday's pandemonium probably started with high school students on social media, who were discussing a "purge," a reference to a film in which laws are suspended.
Many people knew "very early on" that there was "a lot of energy behind this purge movement," Baltimore City Councilman Nick Mosby said Tuesday. "It was a metaphor for, 'Let's go out and make trouble.'"
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The police "came out with this threat yesterday that some of the local gangs were banding together and going to attack police," Mosby said. "And I think maybe that's where their focus was, because clearly, tactically, they weren't ready for these children. I don't think they expected the children to be able to heighten the level of riot the way that they did starting at Mondawmin Mall."
CNN's Chris Cuomo asked Mosby and Carter whether they believe the mayor was calling for police to hold back in order to avoid a repeat of the militarized policing and cycle of violence that plagued Ferguson, Missouri.
"Absolutely," Carter said. Baltimore police "routinely" are "superaggressive," with "zero tolerance for any kind of overactivity going on from these young people," she said. "And yesterday they acted completely opposite to their normal behavior."
But Mosby believes it was not intentional. Authorities "came ill-prepared, and it escalated quicker than they could respond," he said.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said there were about 300 police officers at the mall, but the ages of the rioters factored into the response.
"Yes, we prepared," he said. "Because there are 14-, 15- and 16-year-old kids out there. Do you want people using force on 14-, 15-, 16-year-old kids that are out there? They're old enough to know better. They're old enough to know not to do those things. They're old enough to be accountable, but they're still kids. unfortunately. So, we had to take into account while we were out there."
Rawlings-Blake told CNN's "The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer" that the city tried to have a response that was "appropriate and not excessive. That's what our parents are asking us for."
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On Saturday, Rawlings-Blake made a comment that some interpreted as allowing and even inviting violence. "While we tried to make sure that (protesters) were protected from the cars and the other things that were going on, we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well," she said.
But she has since emphasized that she was not giving a stamp of approval to riots. Instead, she says, she meant that the city allowed protests to take place and some people took advantage of that.
"I did not say that we were passive of it," Rawlings-Blake said in a Monday night press conference. "I've never said anything to that fact."
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She is in a very difficult situation, CNN commentator Marc Lamont Hill noted on "New Day."
"It's a very, very tricky tightrope to walk," he said. "We saw in Ferguson the exact opposite, right? Where they told police to come out, police were in full force. In fact we saw maybe one of the strongest shows of force in such a small town in recent memory, and it didn't do anything but further militarize the space, further antagonize a community and create the very thing they were trying to prevent."
Former New York Police Detective Harry Houck disagreed. "There's no thin line here," he said. "There's breaking the law ... and then there's peacefully demonstrating." Once authorities start allowing people to break the law, "thugs" will keep coming out, he said. "This is where it got to where it is today."
A man attempts to calm a fellow demonstrator as they face off with Baltimore police on Monday.
There was already intelligence last week suggesting such riots could happen in Baltimore, Houck said.
"I'm sure those police officers in Baltimore knew something was going to happen," Houck said, adding that he believes if it had been up to the police, "this would not have occurred."