Using Information and Communication to Respond to Civil Unrest: Baltimore’s JIC


September 15th, 2015

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By CHHS Research Assistant Hanna Ernstberger

Recent peaceful gatherings outside the Baltimore Circuit Courthouse are a stark comparison to the riots that tore through the city in April. Throughout the past few weeks, protesters have assembled, with little incident, in front of Courthouse East to speak their opinions regarding pre-trial motions in the ongoing Freddie Gray case. The drastic difference may be due to hindsight, giving the city time to cool off, or it may be due to the pre-trial motions thus far being determined favorably to protestors.  But it may also be, in part, due to the city’s newfound preparation.

When rioters began to ravage the city following the funeral of Freddie Gray, many Baltimore City police officers stood helpless.  Ordered to hold the line, officers were not given permission to move in until about an hour and a half after the looting began. Even after being given the go-ahead, officers faced the rioters inadequately equipped.  Protective shields were requested for overnight delivery, while thousands of other items were approved for purchase a day after the riots began.

But lack of empowerment and equipment were not the only obstacles officers were forced to overcome. Poor communication between government agencies led to disjointed efforts and chaos. William M. Johnson, Baltimore’s transportation director, exemplified the resulting frustration when writing to mayoral aides, stating, “[t]his issue needs to be corrected unless I am the only person who finds this unacceptable.”

The City, however, is taking steps to be better prepared. In late August, a month after 7,000 emails highlighting these faults were released, the interim police Commissioner Kevin Davis announced plans to establish a Joint Information Center (JIC). The JIC will be a gathering place for representatives from many of the city’s key players – city, state and federal agencies, hospitals, churches, universities, businesses, and other institutions – and will provide an opportunity to discuss tactics face-to-face, streamlining the communication and enabling for more unified plans. Unity is the hopeful key to preventing further unrests and chaos.

Now that the Circuit Court judge has determined that the trials of the six officers involved in Freddie Gray’s death will remain in Baltimore, it is important that the city implements its plans. Though the JIC was announced to only be employed in times of civil unrest, it is imperative that the City is nonetheless prepared to put its plans into action, as the trials may spark more uprising. To ensure its success, the representatives need to coordinate resources, intelligence, and communication.  It is especially important that the City looks to surrounding jurisdictions, as well as sources such as social media for intelligence as city officials questioned the involvement of outside agitators in April’s riots.

But city officials should also look closer to home in seeking assistance. This tactic may prove to provide the most informative source of information.  In April’s riots, information about a “purge” was circulating around the community but took considerable time to make its way into the hands of city officials. With the help of community liaisons, officials can learn about such information in less time and can gauge the community’s general sentiment toward the ongoing case.

Without assistance from the community and a collective effort between all of the city’s key players, the Joint Information Center may fail to prevent a repeat of the spring’s riots. Its success depends on the agencies coming together to share resources and knowledge, as well as community leaders providing their input. As the trials of the six officers loom, it will be a waiting game to see whether there is a need for the JIC and whether it can meet its founders’ expectations.

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