Baltimore Held to the Fire Over Freddie Gray Riots

At the intersection of West North and Philadelphia avenues, protesters blocked traffic while volunteers worked to clean out a burned-out CVS, one of several businesses looted after Freddie Gray’s funeral on April 27, 2015. (Daniel W. Staples, CNS)

BALTIMORE (CN) — Nearly two years after the riots triggered by the death of Freddie Gray, dozens of Baltimore residents and business owners have brought a nearly 700-page complaint against Maryland and the city, demanding compensation for property damage.

Filed on March 6 in Baltimore City Circuit Court, the 65 plaintiffs say they lost business, had buildings burned to the ground and suffered injuries at the hands of the rioters.

“Despite all the warning signs the city and BCPD failed to take reasonable steps to address the risk of the riots that would occur on April 27, 2015,” the complaint states.

“To add insult to injury,” the complaint continues, citing the Storefront Recovery Grant Program, “the city attempted to evade liability by using underhanded tactics.”

Administered through the nonprofit Baltimore Development Corp., the Storefront Recovery program offered $5,000 grants to help with the recovery, but failed to fully disclose that the business owners would have to waive any claims against the city.

The waiver provisions appeared only on the hard copies of the applications, according to the complaint, but many of the participants could not read or speak English.

Businesses that were burned meanwhile received code-violation notices dated just a few days after the rioting, according to the complaint, which says owners had to figure out how to rehabilitate the damaged buildings within 30 days or face criminal charges and fines of up to $500 a day.

Gray, 25, died on April 19, 2015, a week after he suffered a critical spinal cord injury in a transport van taking him to the police station where he was going to be booked for carrying a switchblade.

As news of Gray’s arrest and injury spread, small protests began springing up around the BCPD’s Western District Station, culminating on April 27, the day of his funeral, with violent riots and looting.

Then-Police Commissioner Anthony Batts and Gov. Larry Hogan had both warned of the dangers of the escalating protests. The complaint quotes Batts, whom Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake fired in early July 2015, as saying “out-of-town individuals are attempting to take leadership roles and are promoting very aggressive, potentially violent tactics.”

Hundreds of protesters marched peacefully in Baltimore on April 28, 2015, the day after violent riots over the death of Freddie Gray took hold of Baltimore. (Daniel W. Staples, CNS)

Hogan, who ordered Maryland State Police to assist BCPD in crowd control, spoke about attempts to maintain control. “The last thing we need is more violence in Baltimore City over this issue, which happened in a couple other places around the country,” he said, as quoted in the complaint.

City police meanwhile wrote about their preparations for escalating violence. Their email, as quoted in the complaint, describes “intelligence that individuals from outside the city are … encouraging others to use aggressive tactics and even violence against our officers or others.”

More than a dozen police officers were injured and 34 people were arrested on April 25 when protesters looted a 7-Eleven and damaged several storefronts and police vehicles.

According to a Fraternal Order of Police report quoted in the suit: “Officers were ordered to allow the protestors room to destroy and all the destruction of property so that the rioters would appear to be the aggressors. According to officers’ accounts they were told ‘the Baltimore Police Department would not respond until [the protestors] burned, looted, and destroyed the city so this it would show the rioter were forcing our hand.”

The business owners suing say Baltimore “and BCPD should have taken additional proactive steps to prevent the rioting, violence, and destruction on April 25, 2015.”

“They should have realized, at least once the rioting, violence, and destruction actually occurred on April 25, 2015 that: standing down’ encouraged rather than deterred rioting, violence and destruction; BCPD officers were not adequately equipped to prevent rioting and destruction; and more manpower was needed,” the complaint states.

Both Mayor Rawlings-Blake and Batts made statements that were consistent with the orders to stand down.

“Because this was a protest against the Baltimore Police Department we couldn’t be seen as the aggressors or instigators, as such we needed to give them space,” Batts had said in an internal email obtained by the Baltimore Sun.

The complaint says these emails prove why the city and state are liable for damages after the riots.

“Even in locations where BCPD officers were present, business owners helplessly watched their stores being looted and destroyed as BCPD officers also simply watched and/or turned away, and let the destruction of property continue,” the complaint states.

The suit also quotes remarks from Wicomico County Sheriff Michael Lewis at the time on high-ranking officials from BCPD. “These guys told me they were essentially neutered from the start,” he said, according to the complaint. “They were spayed from the start. They were told to stand down, you will not take any action, let them destroy property.”

Business owners say the governor’s office had begun preparations as early as April 25, but Rawlings-Blake did not request aid until riots were well underway. After the mayor made a call to the governor’s office, Hogan declared a state of emergency on April 27 and called in the Maryland National Guard.

Both the mayor’s office and police department declined to make a statement regarding the lawsuit, citing policies not to comment on pending litigation.

The plaintiffs’ attorney said they brought lawsuit because Baltimore has is “failing to do right by these property and business owners.”

“The city and the other defendants failed them when they adopted a policy of restraint and issued stand-down orders, caring more about the public perception that they feared would result with increased police presence than preventing what were clearly preventable riots,” lawyer Peter Hwang said in an email. “They failed these property and business owners when they failed to take responsibility for the riots, focusing instead on limiting their exposure by using what we view as underhanded tactics to trick these business and property owners into signing releases.  Their failures continue, and our clients have been left with no choice but to file suit to get the relief they are entitled to and very much need.”

Hwang is an attorney with the Columbia law firm Sung & Hwang. His clients seek an excess of $19 million in damages. Lead plaintiffs John Han and Han Bok Chae are the brothers behind Fireside North Liquors on West North Avenue.