Baltimore mayor criticized for police response to rioting

By Ian Simpson and Warren Strobel

BALTIMORE (Reuters) - The day after rioters tore through Baltimore, the city's mayor was criticized on Tuesday for a slow police response to some of the worst U.S. urban unrest in years after the funeral of a 25-year-old black man who died in police custody.

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan said he had called Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake repeatedly Monday but that she held off calling in the National Guard until three hours after violence first erupted.

"The mayor of Baltimore had the city of Baltimore police on the ground. Quite frankly, they were overwhelmed. All the rest of the (boots) on the ground came from us," the Republican governor said the day after declaring a state of emergency in the largely black city.

The death of Freddie Gray gave new energy to the public outcry that flared last year after police killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, New York City and elsewhere. For nearly a week after Gray died from a spinal injury on April 19, protests in Baltimore had been peaceful.

President Barack Obama said he spoke to the governor and mayor to urge them to stop the violence. "There's no excuse for the kind of violence that we saw yesterday," said Obama, who spoke at length about Baltimore at news conference with visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. "It is counterproductive."

Obama also said the problems in places such as Baltimore were not new and need to be addressed by everyone.

?We can?t just leave this to the police. I think there are police departments that have to do some soul searching. I think there?s some communities that have to do some soul searching," Obama said. "But I think we as a country have to do some soul searching. This is not new. It?s been going on for decades.?

Acrid smoke hung over streets where violence broke out just blocks from Gray's funeral and spread through much of the poor West Baltimore neighbourhood. Nineteen buildings and 144 vehicles were set on fire, and 202 people were arrested, according to the mayor's office.

Police said 15 officers were injured, six seriously, in Monday's unrest, which spread throughout the city as police initially looked on but did not interfere as rioters torched vehicles and later businesses.

Looters had ransacked stores, pharmacies and a shopping mall and clashed with police in riot gear in the most violent unrest in the United States since Ferguson, Missouri, was torn by gunshots and arson in late 2014.


Mayor Rawlings-Blake, an African American and Democrat who grew up in Baltimore, a city of 620,000 people 40 miles (64 km) from Washington, D.C., imposed a one-week curfew but stressed the need to respond in a way that did not incite more violence.

"It's a very delicate balancing act, when we have to make sure that we're managing but not increasing and escalating the problem," Rawlings-Blake, 45, told reporters on Tuesday.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said he was sending 150 state police officers to Baltimore on the request of Maryland officials.

Police in Ferguson came under intense criticism last year for quickly adopting a militarised posture, using armoured vehicles, showing heavy weapons and deploying tear gas in a forceful response that some said escalated tensions in the St. Louis suburb.

New York's police department took a more flexible approach in protests later in the year, monitoring marches that crisscrossed the city but largely averting the kind of violence seen in Ferguson and Baltimore.

On Tuesday, volunteers in Baltimore swept up charred debris in front of a CVS pharmacy as dozens of police officers in riot gear stood by and firefighters worked to damp down the embers.

"I'm just here to help out, man," said Shaun Boyd, 30, as he swept up broken glass. "It's the city I'm from."

National Guard troops on Tuesday began to stage around the city, including in front of the police station where officers were bringing Gray at the time he was injured.

Schools were closed and Baltimore-based fund manager T. Rowe Price Group Inc said it would close its downtown office on Tuesday. Legg Mason , also headquartered downtown, said its office would be open, but it was encouraging employees to work from home.

Gray was arrested on April 12 while running from officers. He was transported to the police station in a van, with no seat restraint and suffered the spinal injury. A lawyer for Gray's family says his spine was 80 percent severed at the neck while in custody.

Six officers have been suspended, and the U.S. Justice Department is investigating possible civil rights violations.

Much of Monday's rioting occurred in a neighbourhood where more than a third of families live in poverty. Parts of it had not been rebuilt since the 1968 rioting that swept across the United States after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

Deadly confrontations between mostly white U.S. police and black men, and the subsequent unrest, will be among the challenges facing U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who was sworn in on Monday and condemned the "senseless acts of violence."

(Additional reporting by Jim Bourg; Writing by Scott Malone and Mary Milliken; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Grant McCool)