EASTON — As executive director of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency at the time, Clay Stamp had firsthand dealings with trying to quell the civil unrest in April in Baltimore.
Stamp, who since has returned as Talbot County’s emergency management director, spoke to locals at a Republican Central Committee of Talbot County breakfast in Easton Oct. 27 about his experience as MEMA’s executive director during the 2015 Baltimore riots.
Stamp was announced as MEMA’s next executive director in January shortly before Gov. Larry Hogan was sworn into office. After Hogan took office, Stamp said he got to work right away behind the scenes, working with the governor on several issues that arose between January and the Baltimore unrest in April.
Stamp said the emergency management system — in which local agencies identify their own risks, and the state- and federal-level agencies are there for support when requested — works well when dealing with issues that occur more routinely, like hurricanes.
“It is challenged when you have to deal with things that don’t happen as frequently. For example, the situation of civil unrest in Baltimore, something that doesn’t happen every day,” Stamp said. “In Maryland, the last time it happened was in 1968, so we had to make sure the system worked in order to be able to address what was happening.”
What started in April as a series of peaceful protests in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody turned into violent civil unrest on the part of some of the protesters. The rioters set fires and looted stores, resulting in a citywide curfew. Six Baltimore police officers involved in Gray’s arrest are set to go on trial soon.
Stamp said city officials worked hard to facilitate demonstrations and provide citizens with a platform to share their concerns.
On April 22, the Wednesday before Saturday, April 25, when protests turned violent, Stamp said, MEMA began engaging Baltimore City’s emergency management agency to ask the question about what will happen if “this turns bad.”
On that Thursday, Stamp, along with Baltimore City’s emergency management director and the superintendent of the state police, met with Baltimore’s police department chiefs, who asked for help. He said the governor was “very clear and concise” that he wanted his team to be ready in the event the protests turned violent, so Stamp began to have discussions with key agencies, like the National Guard, state police and transportation administration, on what support for Baltimore City would look like.
On that Friday, the state of emergency declaration was drafted that gave Hogan the ability to activate resources for assistance in Baltimore. That Saturday morning, MEMA’s emergency operations were activated, Stamp said.
Stamp said he had constant conversations with city officials “in trying to get them out of the focus that this was a police event,” but added Baltimore’s law enforcement was focused on handling the situation itself, not on citywide emergency operations.
“That was a miscalculation on their part,” Stamp said. “One thing you’ll learn in emergency management, whether it was a hurricane coming up the coast or whatever situation, if you get behind the proverbial eight ball, you never catch up.”
While there was what Stamp called a “fractured effort” to get the lines of communication open between Hogan and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, he said the state was aggressive in dealing with the situation. Communication opened between the two, and on that Monday, April 27, when riots consisting mostly of young men erupted in Baltimore, Hogan declared a state of emergency and the weeklong curfew was established the following day.
Stamp said Hogan sought an “overwhelming force” to enter the city and restore peace and order.
“I believe his (Hogan’s) view was to be fully supportive of people expressing their views, but the moment it went from peaceful to violent, it had to stop,” Stamp said.
The National Guard was brought to Baltimore along with police from all over Maryland, to aid in stopping the riots. Within 36 hours, 3,200 hundred troops were put on the streets of Baltimore, Stamp said.
A logistics staging area was set up in the parking lots between Camden Yards and M&T Stadium, and every major assisting agency brought its command center, which all were webbed together so they could communicate. The private sector “did amazing things” by donating food and supplies, Stamp said.
“It was just an amazing outpouring, and it was a gamble ... because we were hoping that overwhelming show of force going into the communities would then break the trend of violence,” Stamp said. “That, in combination with a lot of aunts and uncles and mothers and fathers saying to the young people ‘enough,’ brought it under control.”
There were lessons learned from the Baltimore unrest, he said.
Key is the necessity for early recognition to engage the emergency management system, Stamp said. Baltimore officials missed that opportunity, he said, adding that they have learned from it and improvements in that regard will likely be seen.
MEMA also set up a plan for future assistance for law enforcement, considering the upcoming police officers’ trials, he said.
Another takeaway revolved around social media. Stamp said much of the rioting was being orchestrated through social media, so officials in the emergency operations center monitored it in real time and responded, even being able to intercept a message and stop a riot before it began.
Stamp resigned as MEMA’s executive director in July to be closer to home and his family in Talbot County. He was hired back on as Talbot County’s emergency management director immediately, but he remains a senior advisor to Hogan on emergency management and he will be working with the governor on policy issues on how emergency management is conducted at the state level.
Stamp said other cities around the country are interested in the lessons learned from the Baltimore riots, and on Wednesday, Oct. 28, he was in Nashville, Tenn., talking to the state’s emergency management system about the details of the unrest in April.