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by Peter Moskos

August 29, 2017

The Consequences of Bad Leadership: the Baltimore Riots of 2015

Last post I talked about what didn't cause the 2015 riots in Baltimore. Well, what did? Macro theory too often assumes happenings and history are per-ordained, that leadership decisions don't have consequences, and that individuals have no free will. But what if the buses kept running? What if police continued to disperse crowds in the street instead of retreating? What if Gregory Lee Butler hadn't cut (or been able to cut) a fire hose outside the burning CVS? What if police had arrested him on the spot? These things matter. If they don't, I don't know why we bother to try at all.

The riots were not inevitable. Systemic problems matter, but they're a constant. As important as they are, poverty and segregation and drug addiction and broken families and violence are nothing new in Baltimore. And they certain were not worse in 2015 than they were in the preceding decade. Why on April 27, 2017 and not on April 25 or 26? Or why not in 2003, when police arrested 312 people a day, many for minor zero-tolerance bullshit reasons? By 2014, the arrest rate had dropped by two-thirds and violence was down. God did not ordain Baltimore would burn a week after the death of Freddie Gray. It didn't have to happen.

Bad leadership caused the Baltimore riot of April 27, 2015. Effective leadership and tactics can be the difference between a protest or even a violent disturbance and a riot. The latter happens not just because people are pissed off. People are always pissed off, sometimes for good reason. Now this is a weird point to make, but Freddie Gray wasn't the first guy to die in the back of a police van; sadly, since the city still hasn't procured safe transport vehicles, he probably won't be the last. Angry people are a necessary but insufficient cause of rioting. Poor decisions in planning, message, and tactics let a bad situation spiral out of control.

Bad leadership has consequences. If not, why seek good leadership? Actions and inaction matter. Only on April 26, 2015, for instance, did the mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, defended a "measured" police response to protests by saying: "We also gave those who wish to destroy space to do that as well." The riots started the next day.

At the time, in 2015, many said the mayor's words didn't matter. And also that she didn't mean what she said, which may be true, but those were the words she said and the words people repeated. Also, now it's 2017. Does anybody still believe that the words from a chief elected executive have no impact? That they can't incite violence?

But it took many more bad decisions before the riots started. Somebody (and oddly, we still don't know who) made horrible transit and crowd control decisions at Mondawmin Mall on April 27. School kids were stranded en masse because the transit system was stupidly shut down. Kids couldn't get home. It was bad, but the city still wasn't in riot mode.

Ultimately the riots started because when things got rough, and cops received orders to pull back. The fear at the top, the mayor and Commissioner Batts, was that was police would be criticized for over-reacting. (And truth be told, they probably would have been.) But good leadership is willing to face criticism.

This video shows where and when the riot started, at the corner or North and Pennsylvania Avenues. (And just a block from the aptly named Retreat St). The looting began at 4:37pm. A line of cops was present near the CVS at 4:41pm. Even after looting began, cops didn't act. For more than hour cops stood by while the store was set on fire. A fire hose was cut within steps of officers who followed orders and did not engage. Police didn’t move till 6pm, and even then it took 50 minutes to regain control of the corner. By then it was too late. "Hold the line," police officers were ordered, and they did. And while waiting for orders to act, the "Thin Blue Line" (that ever-trite but here apt cliché) broke down, and the city burned out of control.


Unknown said...

OK. This is impressive.

I just looked at this study. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/292982674_Was_there_a_Ferguson_Effect_on_crime_rates_in_large_US_cities

NHST (null hypothesis significance testing) has taken a serious beatdown. Especially in social psychology, which may not be in crisis, but is close.

A case study with supported by descriptive statistics -- # of homicides -- is a much more interesting and satisfying approach.

I can guarantee there is no Ferguson effect in my neighborhood. Hardly a surprise.

Baltimore went from roughly 200 to 300 homicides per year. But out of the 200, there is some residue of homicides that have nothing to do with street crime -- domestics, murder/suicide, etc. So a hypothetical 'addressable' subset of homicides may have roughly doubled. The above is highly subjective but makes sense to me -- although I would want to be more precise if this wasn't a blog comment.

We are operating in an environment where crime doesn't pay as much. People carry less cash. Welfare checks have turned into debit cards. Lots of video cameras. Most houses don't have much of value to steal. Electronics -- computers/TV's/Stereos are not worth the trouble.

And for crimes other than homicide, the quality of the data is weak. For all the reasons that you have discussed at length. I have to wonder if law enforcement statistical systems don't make it worse.

What are you going to believe? Your lying eyes?

Unknown said...

Just to be clear .... I found the linked study which was skeptical of a Ferguson effect complicated and not convincing.

Compared to a case study supported by a simple descriptive statistic,.

The study was disingenuous because the tagline was there is no systematic Ferguson effect. This is followed by the qualification that maybe it exists in largely black, disadvantaged, historically violent neighborhoods.

Unknown said...

This is a great post, Peter. I completely agree that bad leadership is absolutely at fault in what happened in Baltimore.

While it is understandable that people will see the Grey incident and feel angry. This is especially true of an African-American community that feels the police are more of an oppressive influence in their lives than one of service.

However, I do agree that the riots did not have to take place. Angry protesting, sure. You said it best, sometimes people have a good reason to be pissed. The transport vehicles for Baltimore PD are inadequate and unsafe. People were pissed over it. I get it.

However, responding to it by rioting, looting, and burning down of businesses? That could have been avoided completely had the Mayor and Commissioner showed empathy, common sense, and employed plain old-fashioned good community relations skills.

Words have immense power, and I agree Peter, that in this case, the impact of both the Commissioner and Mayor's words helped to incite the riots. When you have a gasoline spill, the last thing you ever want to do is drop a lighted match.

Instead, they could have said, "We understand you're angry and disappointed by what took place. You have every right to peacefully assemble and protest. However, if there is violence, looting, and rioting, our police officers will be forced to harshly respond to restore order." Leave it at that.

Anonymous said...

In line with what you were saying, yes, bad leadership can cause an already bad situation to spiral even more out of control. Leaders are in place to lead--to make the tough calls when situations are delicate, to understand the complex problems of their community, and to react accordingly. Being a leader isn't easy because of the decisions that need to be made. They will almost never be able to make every single person happy. However, they should be able to control situations such as these.

Unknown said...

I will have to agree with you that bad leadership can cause situations to spiral out of control. If the mayor would have shown some empathy towards the killing of Freddie Gray, then matters could have been different. It makes it almost worse because he was an African American boy and the African American community already feels that law enforcement is not on their side. If the mayor would have taken action in the beginning and provided safe transport vehicles, especially since Freddie was not the first to die in the back of one, then it could have prevented the riots. I agree that good leadership could have actually prevented the protest and riots. If the community felt the need to protest, good leadership could have prevented those protests from turning into horrible riots. First, the police should not have been told to hold back when things got rough because it only made things worse. In my eyes, the mayor should have acted sooner and should have shown empathy right when Freddie Gray was killed in the back of the police van. Simply allowing people to form a peaceful protest and taking action right when it starts to get out of hand, would be a form of good leadership.

Anonymous said...


Bad leadership is certainly the cause of these riots. The mayor gave the public a place where their voices could be heard. She either didn't take into account that this is highly probably breeding ground for a riot, she didn't care about a riot forming, or she didn't know what do to about a riot forming. I believe that if she were to have good judgement and good leadership skills, she would have taken the proper precautions. She should not have given the community such space and without being arrested for looting actions until it was too late. I believe that it is truly hard to please everyone, but she should have realized, as a good leader would, that not taking proper security precautions would end terribly. She put community members in harms way, her police team in danger, and even herself.