As a fire raged at a CVS pharmacy on a late April night during the most intense riots in Baltimore, Montgomery County police officers, clad in riot gear, took the lead in forcing rioters back so the city’s firefighters could enter the area.
Interspersed among the county officers were Baltimore police officers, wearing blue helmets and holding small riot shields, but it was mostly Montgomery’s officers, clad in black “turtle” riot gear pads and holding extended shields that blocked most of their bodies, who held the front line, according to a top county police official.
Betsy Davis, assistant chief of Montgomery County police, told Bethesda Beat Wednesday that county officers took over the front line that Monday night because Baltimore police didn’t have the training or equipment, such as gas masks and full riot gear, to handle the situation.
“That’s why [Baltimore Police] called us,” Davis said. “They didn’t have the officers to handle the front line. At points they did have helmets, but they didn’t have turtle gear, and many didn’t have shields.”
Baltimore Police did not respond to questions sent to the department’s public information office.
Davis said the experience in Baltimore, especially on that night, was one of the most dangerous she’s encountered in 30 years on the county force. During the riots, Davis commanded a team of 50 Montgomery officers who are specialized in crowd control.
“People were throwing rocks, bottles, whatever they could get their hands on and the [Baltimore] officers were going after them, but they didn’t have enough officers to do it, they were outnumbered,” Davis said. “We had to say…‘We need to hold the line.’ ”
Bricks, rocks and other objects were thrown at officers holding the line during the riots. Photo via Montgomery County Police
She said Baltimore police first asked for Montgomery County’s assistance on Saturday, April 25, when protesters first showed signs of violence. The protesters had been growing in number since 25-year-old Freddie Gray suffered a spinal cord injury in police custody that led to his death. The county sent 50 officers to the city Saturday night. That night a small group of protesters significantly damaged a police car near Camden Yards, but the unrest ended soon after.
On Monday, April 27, the day of Gray’s funeral, Baltimore again asked for backup from Montgomery police, according to Davis.
“Monday was the worst, I’ve never seen so much hatred in my life,” Davis said. “I’ve never seen so much anger.”
Davis said she and 50 officers from the Special Event Response Team (SERT) were sent to Baltimore and arrived at 10 a.m. Monday for an initial briefing with Baltimore police. At the briefing, Davis said Baltimore police knew about a planned student “purge”—a reference to a movie where crime is briefly made legal—near Mondawmin Mall in northwest Baltimore that had been orchestrated on social media by local students over the weekend.
Members of Montgomery County Police’s Special Event Response Team arrived in Baltimore with full “turtle” suits, which helped them to protect a front line when the riots became intense, according to Assistant Chief Betsy Davis. Credit: Montgomery County Police
Based on that knowledge, Davis asked if police officers had closed the mall and was told they had. When school was let out, officers were stationed around the city, with Montgomery’s officers posted at the Inner Harbor.
Davis said while county officers were at the Inner Harbor they heard about young people throwing rocks and other items at officers at Mondawmin Mall, so they responded to the mall Monday afternoon.
When the Montgomery team arrived, Davis said Baltimore officers were attempting to chase suspects and put them under arrest—which she says was only exacerbating the situation.
Davis said that’s when Montgomery officers took the front line and, with the help of pepper balls—which are like paintballs, but filled with substances similar to pepper spray—were able to push the protesters out of the Mondawmin Mall area.
As the officers moved forward, Davis said they had to make sure cars were not left behind and that officers covered alleyways to protect their flank.
“If you left a car, they were going to burn it,” Davis said, so they attempted to get tow trucks to remove the vehicles.
A car set on fire near the intersection of West North and Pennsylvania avenues. Credit: Betsy Davis
As the students left the area, Davis said adults began to join the unrest as part of a large group that gathered outside the CVS near the intersection of West North and Pennsylvania avenues.
The Montgomery officers then headed to the CVS. Officers used riot shields to brace the windows of the vans they traveled in as the vehicles were pelted with rocks and other objects. By the time they arrived, the store was already on fire with a large crowd gathered outside of it. Some rioters were still running into the burning store and taking items.
Davis said a Montgomery officer, trained in gas systems, was able to shut off the gas line to the burning building. Montgomery officers, as well as some Baltimore officers, moved the protesters out of the main intersection at West North and Pennsylvania avenues so that firefighters could enter and fight the fire.
The scene from behind the line – Montgomery County’s officers can be seen near the front wearing yellow and green pieces of tape, Baltimore’s officers stood among them. Credit: Betsy Davis
During the process of moving the line, Davis said officers were being pelted with bottles, bricks, rocks, and even small propane tanks and Molotov cocktails. The officers had to move the line slightly farther down Pennsylvania Avenue, past a fire hydrant, after rioters cut a fire hose—an event that was captured live on CNN.
“The scariest thing was you had to make sure you had water on your person, not to put out a structure fire, but in case you caught fire,” Davis said. “I’ve been on [the force] for 30 years and I thought ‘This is crazy.’ I felt like we were in a war and you couldn’t really defend yourself.”
Davis said county officers weren’t able to use their own tear gas to disperse the rioters because Baltimore’s officers didn’t have gas masks.
“We think if we had thrown tear gas, people would have backed away,” Davis said. “But we couldn’t do it. We worked with Baltimore City command to make those decisions. They didn’t have the equipment. You can’t throw gas if they’re standing next to you and don’t have the masks.”
At times, she said individuals would ride right up to the line with motorcycles or vehicles. During those instances, Davis feared officers would use deadly force.
As the night wore on, the Montgomery officers remained near the CVS as police from Baltimore, Prince George’s County and other jurisdictions handled other situations around the city. Davis said the 50 officers left the city around 4 a.m.—about 18 hours after their shifts had started—and could see the National Guard trucks pouring into the city. Some officers suffered minor injuries, Davis said, but none were seriously injured.
More than 380 businesses reported damage and 61 buildings were burned in the city that night, reported The Baltimore Sun.
Davis first talked about her experience during a wide-ranging discussion about community policing with the Montgomery County Council on Tuesday.
“Being in Baltimore, I can tell you they did not have the training that we have in Montgomery County,” Davis told the council. “We were sent there because we had the training, we had the equipment.”
“I watched those [Baltimore] officers do things that caused more havoc because they didn’t have the training,” Davis said. “I can’t blame them, but you have to look up at the top and why they didn’t in such a big city. We were standing next to them, at times we felt so bad, I said, ‘I can’t believe they don’t have this training or the equipment.’ At times, they looked lost.”
“I feared that someone was going to have to use deadly force at certain points, but I think our training led us to believe we knew how to handle the situation,” Davis said. “So it was very reassuring to myself that at least I had officers up there who knew what they were doing and how to handle the situation.”
During Wednesday’s interview, she said her officers used significant restraint, but also understood the risks associated with attempting to arrest individuals on their own.
“Our officers could have said, ‘We’re going to go after these people and lock them up,’ ” Davis said. “But you can’t go after individuals by yourself either because you’re taking your life in your own hands.”
Davis said she thinks what happened in Baltimore could happen anywhere, but that Montgomery County Police Chief Tom Manger has taken steps to prevent similar unrest by working with local communities to understand issues involving police. During the council discussion Tuesday, Manger detailed the county force’s emphasis on de-escalation during incidents, policing according to the law, using restraint and efforts to connect with local neighborhoods.
Davis said currently the county has 144 officers who are trained for civil unrest situations and fully outfitted with riot gear. Another 40 officers are scheduled to go through a class in late June to receive the training, while police are planning to train an additional 150 officers on riot situations.
Image above right of Assistant Chief Betsy Davis and a Montgomery Police captain near Mondawmin Mall. Credit: Montgomery County Police
Image above left of Chief Davis speaking at a hearing Tuesday in front of the Montgomery County Council.