ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Baltimore's leaders are being criticized for not cracking down sufficiently on violent rioters yesterday. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was accused today of holding back the police. But crowd control is a sensitive matter, especially after the widespread condemnation of police in Ferguson, Mo., last summer. They were criticized for being overly confrontational. NPR's Martin Kaste has this report.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Even as the fires were still smoldering in Baltimore, the media were trying to figure out whom to blame, and they grilled the mayor, asking if the memory of Ferguson had made her too reluctant to impose order. She pushed back.
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MAYOR STEPHANIE RAWLINGS-BLAKE: We have an obligation to protect people's First Amendment right. We also understand through the best training and best practices that we have to do everything that we can to de-escalate.
KASTE: But Baltimore police were too cautious in the opinion of David Klinger. He's a former cop who now teaches at the criminology and criminal justice department at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, and he was frustrated by what he saw yesterday.
DAVID KLINGER: Your job is to protect life and property and to not let people run about, steal stuff, burn down drugstores - for example, the CVS store there. It's inexcusable.
KASTE: He thinks crowd control has become overly politicized in America and not just since Ferguson.
KLINGER: The police do not have effective political backing. The political leaders are largely individuals who put their hands to the wind and say, what will public sentiment say tomorrow if something goes sideways, instead of going, what is the right thing to do right now?
KASTE: Once people start breaking the law, Klinger says police simply have to use force - no debate. But he says there is a legitimate debate about how police should behave before violence breaks out. That debate often centers on seemingly small things such as the challenge of calming a crowd when you're wearing riot gear.
GIL KERLIKOWSKE: It's pretty hard to engage in those discussions when you're hardened up.
KASTE: That's Gil Kerlikowske, the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, in an interview last year with Morning Edition. He has a lot of experience with crowds. He was with the Seattle Police Department during the 1999 WTO riots. And he recalled another Seattle riot, a Mardi Gras riot, when he thinks the cops' gear just made things worse. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We incorrectly say that Gil Kerlikowske was with the Seattle police department during the 1999 WTO riots. In fact, Kerlikowske joined the department in 2000 and was police chief during tumultuous protests on the one-year anniversary of the WTO meeting.]
KERLIKOWSKE: I would have been smarter to approach it with officers dressed as I was, in soft gear.
KASTE: In fact, a couple of decades ago, one reform-minded police chief in Madison, Wis., went so far as to try to calm crowds down by dressing his officers in blue blazers. That takes the soft tactics a little too far for many police officers. But what it shows is that the debate about tactics isn't so much about what to do when things get violent. As David Klinger says, the real discussion among the professional cops is how you keep things from getting that way.
KLINGER: How much should the show of force be? What type of posture do you want to have? And those are legitimate debates, but once the rocks, the bottles, the bricks start to come towards the police - once people are breaking into stores, there is really no debate among people who understand what the job is.
KASTE: For the police and their bosses, the problem is one of timing - knowing when to draw the line. As the mayor of Baltimore put it, the city gave people, quote, "a space for peaceful protest, a space that some people then exploited to break the law." Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.