Obama calls for ‘soul searching’ after Baltimore riots

US president appeals to police departments to review how they handle black suspects

Protesters hurl stones toward police in riot gear, after the funeral for 25-year-old Freddie Gray who died after being taken into police custody in Baltimore. Video: Reuters

 

US president Barack Obama has called on police departments across the country to do some “soul searching” on how they handle black suspects after race-related rioting erupted in Baltimore, Maryland.

Mr Obama said it was important for police departments to recognise that some of them have a problem with how they deal with minority criminal suspects.

“There are some police who aren’t doing the right thing,” Mr Obama said, while also noting that some police chiefs have recognised that “they’ve got to get their arms” around the problem.

Mr Obama, at a joint news conference with visiting Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, made his first public statement about Freddie Gray (25), who died of a broken spine on April 19th after being arrested by Baltimore police.

“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. But I think we as a country have to do some soul searching. This is not new. It’s been going on for decades.”

Mr Obama had a six-point response to a pointed question about Baltimore, which started with the president extending sympathy to Gray’s family, as well as to police officers injured in Monday’s violence. He then denounced the rioting as counterproductive and said its perpetrators were criminals and thugs.

The president said the Baltimore violence distracted from the preceding days of peaceful and constructive protest by “demonstrators who did it the right way”.

Baltimore arrests

The Baltimore mayor’s office has said that nearly 200 people have been arrested, and 15 buildings and 144 vehicles set on fire during Monday night’s riots in the city.

The news came as Baltimore residents began cleaning up the wreckage from rioting and fires that erupted after the funeral of Freddie Gray.

Smoke hung over streets as fire crews raced to contain damage from violence that broke out just blocks from the funeral of Freddie Gray and spread through much of west Baltimore.

The unrest - which saw looters ransack stores, pharmacies and a shopping mall and clash with police in riot gear - was the most violent in the US since protests in Ferguson, Missouri, late last year.

Volunteers swept up charred debris and broken glass in front of a CVS pharmacy in a poor west Baltimore neighbourhood as dozens of police officers in riot gear stood by while firefighters worked to damp down the embers.

“I’m just here to help out, man. It’s the city I’m from,” said Shaun Boyd, as he swept up broken glass as part of a group of people using donated brooms and scoops in the cleanup effort.

Police said 15 officers were injured, six seriously, in Monday’s unrest.

Gray’s death gave new energy to the public outcry over police treatment of black Americans that flared last year after police killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, New York and elsewhere.

The violence appeared to catch city officials and community leaders off-guard after a week of mostly peaceful protests following Gray’s death on April 19th.

Violence continued overnight and armed police were deployed to protect fire service personnel. Fire fighters battled fires as several buildings were set ablaze.

Republican governor of Maryland Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency on Monday and the National Guard arrived in the city. A one-week curfew was also imposed in the largely black city starting on Tuesday night, with exceptions for work and medical emergencies.

Answering criticism of not responding quickly enough to Monday’s events, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake told CNN: “This was an incident that sparked this afternoon . . . I think it would have been inappropriate to bring in the National Guard when we had it under control.”

Baltimore schools were closed on Tuesday in the city of 620,000 people, 64 km from the US capital.

“When you see the destruction you’ve also got to realise there’s pain, there’s pain behind a lot of this,” said US Representative Elijah Cummings, a Democrat who represents the region hit by the rioting.

The mayor, he said, should “assure us that the police department be looked at from top to bottom, everything from parking tickets straight up to indictments for murder”.

Buildings ablaze

Aerial footage from Monday night showed several buildings ablaze in Baltimore, including housing units for the elderly, and firefighters trying to bring the fires under control. Earlier, protestors were pictured confronting police officers and looting local shops in scenes of chaos.

The violence led former Baltimore mayor Martin O’Malley, a likely Democratic presidential candidate in 2016, to cancel his trip to Ireland on Tuesday where he was due to deliver a number of speeches, including to a Dublin law firm and accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Mr O’Malley described Mr Gray’s death as “another awful and horrific loss of life” when he was speaking to reporters at a Democratic Party convention in South Carolina on Saturday.

“Every life is needed, every life is important,” he said. “Whether it is a police custodial death or a police-involved shooting, we all have a responsibility to ask whether there are things we can do to prevent such a loss of life from happening in the future.”

Freddie Gray died of a severed spine, according to officials, leading to six police officers being suspended as investigations continue into the circumstances surrounding his death.

Video of his arrest showed Mr Gray being cuffed with his hands behind him and then being placed into a police van. The van stopped at least twice. In the first stop Mr Gray was removed by police, placed on the ground and his legs put in restraints.

Rioting began in a northwestern Baltimore neighbourhood of Mondawmin where more than 2,000 people, including politicians, civil rights activists and White House officials had gathered at the New Shiloh Baptist Church for Mr Gray’s funeral service.

Protesters began throwing missiles at police dressed in riot gear hours after the funeral ended. Cars were set on fire and businesses were looted, including a CVS pharmacy outlet in the area.

As night descended on the city, violence spread with police initially reporting at least 27 arrests in the city, which is located 64km north east of the White House in Washington DC.

“What we see tonight that is going on in our city is very disturbing,” Ms Rawlings-Blake told a news conference.

“Too many people have spent generations building up this city for it to be destroyed by thugs who, in a very senseless way, are trying to tear down what so many have fought for.”

Thousands of law enforcement officers were deployed in an effort to end the violence. Officials requested up to 5,000 National Guard troops and 5,000 police officers from across the surrounding mid-Atlantic region in an effort to restore order to the city.

Firefighters responded to multiple fires, mostly in the western and northwest neighbourhoods of the city, in the early hours of the morning.

Rick Hoffman, president of Baltimore’s firefighters union, said at the scene of a burnt-out corner market in the Sandtown neighbourhood in northwest Baltimore it was “probably the worst night” he had seen.

Some residents had cut firefighters’ water supply lines, he said.

“We have had at least a dozen fires. People we have sworn an oath to protect are getting in our way and keeping us from doing our job,” he said.

Standing on the street corner opposite the smouldering blaze of the Hae-Tieuneun supermarket, Justin Kerr (24), a trainee paramedic and volunteer firefighter who lives four blocks away, saw people fleeing two houses next door to the destroyed shop that caught fire.

“I am deeply saddened by it,” he said, referring to the devastating in the neighbourhood as he stands a short distance from where Freddie Gray was arrested by police on April 12th.

“I am also ashamed a bit because these are my people, people who I live with and people who I play with. It is sad to see but we have a lot of misguided youth and they don’t know how to direct their emotions sometimes.”

Loretta Lynch, president Barack Obama’s newly sworn-in attorney general, said that the US Department of Justice would continue to investigate Mr Gray’s death. She sent send two senior officials to Baltimore in an effort to help quell the rioting.

“I intend to work with leaders throughout Baltimore to ensure that we can protect the security and civil rights of all residents,” she said.

Ms Lynch said that those committing acts of violence “ostensibly in protest of the death of Freddie Gray do a disservice to his family.”

Hillary Clinton, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, said in a message posted on her Twitter account that she was “praying for peace and safety for all in Baltimore and for Freddie Gray’s family - his death is a tragedy that demands answers.”

Mr Gray’s funeral was attended by Erica Garner (24), the daughter of Eric Garner, who died last year after being held by a New York police officer in a neck chokehold, sparking nationwide protests.

“It’s like there is no accountability, no justice,” she said. “It’s like we’re back in the ‘50s, back in the Martin Luther King days. When is our day to be free going to come?”

Additional reporting: Reuters

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