Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the courtrooms in Baltimore…
You may be forgiven if you’d thought that the entire Freddie Gray saga was in our collective rear view mirror at this point. It’s been a couple of years now. Most of the damage from the riots has been cleaned up. The trials of the police officers involved (at least those that made it as far as trial before being abandoned) are long since over. So what’s left to debate?
According to the owners of more than five dozen businesses which were damaged or totally destroyed in the riots, there’s plenty to talk about and they plan on doing so in a court of law. Over sixty businesses have banded together and filed suit against the city, the mayor (at the time), the Chief of Police and others, saying that they abjectly failed in their duty to prevent the destruction of property and injuries which resulted from riots which were not only predictable, but preventable if the municipal government had acted responsibly. (Baltimore Sun)
Dozens of Baltimore business owners are suing city officials, including the police department and former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, saying they mishandled the city’s response to the rioting in 2015.
In a nearly 700-page complaint filed in federal court this week, more than 60 plaintiffs say city officials failed to prevent the looting and rioting that erupted after the arrest and death of Freddie Gray in April 2015, despite warnings the city would experience violence.
More than 380 businesses, including many located south of North Avenue in West Baltimore, were damaged or destroyed. Property losses were estimated at nearly $13 million.
Chief among the defendants in this case are former Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts, former Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the city council, the police department, the state of Maryland and almost everyone in between.
I’d been wondering for a while now if business owners could actually do this. Sure, they’re citing the possibility under the Maryland Riot Act statute, so perhaps there’s a chance. (Just as a side note, how bad off does your city have to be to pass a riot act statute?) But could they actually win in court when the city officials in question will simply argue that they did what they thought was right at the time, acted in good faith simply miscalculated the crowd? At least I assume that’s the defense they will seek to build.
But the plaintiffs do have a powerful body of evidence to cite in their favor. There are mountains of video clips and newspaper accounts of the timeline leading up to the violence. They include public statements from both the Governor and Commissioner Batts citing worries about the violence which had erupted in Ferguson and fears that the same thing could happen in Baltimore. Even after the crowds began massing, the local press covered the orders that the police were given to “stand down” and let the crowds go where they wished. And even once the fires were blazing and the windows were shattering, it wasn’t until the following day that a curfew was ordered and extra troops were brought in.
And then there was the infamous quote which Rawlings-Blake gave in her press conference on the steps of City Hall.
“…we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well.”
She tried to walk that one back almost immediately, “clarifying” what she was saying, but the damage was done. And now, when I look back on the body of evidence, the plaintiffs may just have a case after all. That’s probably bad news for a city which is already trying to deal with massive budget shortfalls and a staggering murder problem, but the people who lost their livelihoods in the riots clearly deserve something. And who do you plan to hold accountable… the rioters?