Police grilled over response time to Baltimore riots

2015-04-28 11:00
An injured police officer is carried away by his fellow officers in Baltimore. (File: AP)

An injured police officer is carried away by his fellow officers in Baltimore. (File: AP)

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Baltimore - National Guard troops fanned out through Baltimore, shield-bearing police officers blocked the streets and fire-fighters doused still-simmering blazes early on Tuesday as a growing area of the city shuddered from riots following the funeral of a black man who died in police custody.

The violence that started in West Baltimore on Monday afternoon — within a mile of where Freddie Gray was arrested and placed into a police van earlier this month — had by midnight spread to East Baltimore and neighbourhoods close to downtown and near the baseball stadium.

It was one of the most volatile outbreaks of violence prompted by a police-involved death in the US since the days of protests that followed the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man who was shot and killed during a confrontation with a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, last summer.

At least 15 officers were hurt in Baltimore, including six who remained hospitalised late on Monday, police said. Two dozen people were arrested.

A weeklong, daily curfew was imposed beginning on Tuesday from 22:00 to 05:00, the mayor said, and Baltimore public schools announced they would be closed on Tuesday.

State of emergency

State and local authorities pledged to restore order and calm, but quickly found themselves responding to questions about whether their initial responses had been adequate.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was asked why she waited hours to ask the governor to declare a state of emergency, while the governor himself hinted she should have come to him earlier.

"We were all in the command centre in the second floor of the State House in constant communication, and we were trying to get in touch with the mayor for quite some time," Govenor Larry Hogan told a Monday evening news conference. "She finally made that call, and we immediately took action."

Rawlings-Blake said officials believed they had gotten the unrest that had erupted over the weekend under control "and I think it would have been inappropriate to bring in the National Guard."

But later on, Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts made it clear events had become unmanageable. "They just outnumbered us and outflanked us," Batts said. "We needed to have more resources out there."

Batts said authorities had had a "very trying and disappointing day".

Police certainly had their work cut out for them: The rioters set police cars and buildings on fire in several neighbourhoods, looted a mall and liquor stores and threw rocks at police with riot gear who responded occasionally with pepper spray.

Massive force

"I understand anger, but what we're seeing isn't anger," Rawlings-Blake said. "It's disruption of a community. The same community they say they care about, they're destroying. You can't have it both ways."

Major Generak Linda Singh, adjutant general of the Maryland National Guard, said up to 5 000 troops would be available for Baltimore's streets.

"We are going to be out in massive force, and that just means basically that we are going to be patrolling the streets and out to ensure that we are protecting property," Singh said at a news conference on Monday night.

Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings and about 200 others, including ministers, tried unsuccessfully to quell the violence at one point on Monday night, marching arm-in-arm through a neighbourhood littered with broken glass, flattened aluminium cans and other debris.

 As they got close to a line of police officers, the marchers went down on their knees. They then rose to their feet and walked until they were face-to-face with the police officers in a tight formation and wearing riot gear.

But the violence continued, with looters later setting a liquor store on fire and throwing cinder blocks at fire trucks as fire-fighters laboured to put out the blazes.

Monday's riot was the latest flare-up over the death of Gray and came amid a national debate over police use of force following the high-profile deaths of several black men in encounters with police — from the Brown death in Ferguson to the deaths of Eric Garner in New York and Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina.

Gray was black. Police have declined to specify the races of the six officers involved in his arrest, all of whom have been suspended with pay while they are under investigation.

Peace march

While they are angry about what happened to Gray, his family said riots are not the answer.

"I think the violence is wrong," Gray's twin sister, Fredericka Gray, said late on Monday. "I don't like it at all."

The attorney for Gray's family, Billy Murphy, said the family had hoped to organise a peace march later in the week.

Hours before the riots began on Monday, mourners filled the 2 500-capacity New Shiloh Baptist church to attend Freddie Gray's funeral.

Gray was arrested on April 12 after making eye contact with officers and then running away, police said. He was held down, handcuffed and loaded into a van without a seat belt. Leg cuffs were put on him when he became irate inside.

He asked for medical help several times even before being put in the van, but paramedics were not called until after a 30-minute ride. Police have acknowledged he should have received medical attention on the spot where he was arrested, but they have not said how he suffered a serious spinal injury. He died on April 19.

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