The death of Freddie Gray on April 19 ignited a firestorm of civil unrest the likes of which haven’t been seen in Baltimore in over 40 years. With the situation quickly escalating out of control, Governor Larry Hogan called in reinforcements from the military and other law-enforcement agencies to quell or at least contain the wanton violence and destruction. Among those who responded to the call were Wicomico County Sheriff Mike Lewis and his highly trained Sheriff’s Emergency Response Team (SERT). What was waiting for the veteran law officers was, to them, nothing short of shocking – whether it went down on Pennsylvania Avenue in Baltimore or on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.
Sheriff Lewis sat down with Coastal Style to recount in his candid, no-nonsense way the six harrowing days in Baltimore when, as he put it, “all hell broke loose.”
For me, it begins on Saturday night, April 25. I was attending the Fruitland Fire Department’s annual banquet here in Salisbury when I learned there was rioting in Baltimore City. I was receiving text messages and ignoring incoming calls likely related to it — though I did take one call, from someone who was watching it unfold on CNN and Fox News. I was absolutely shocked by what I’d heard: They were burning police cars, and Orioles fans were temporarily restricted to Camden Yards because of the violence. What was even more shocking was the apparent lack of response by the Baltimore City Police Department.
As I was sitting in my office the following Monday, my commanders and I watched the riots unfold. We all were in a state of disbelief that this was occurring in America, in Maryland, just two hours west of where we were sitting.
I watched Governor Hogan on national TV as he requested the assistance of all available law enforcement personnel in Baltimore City. Within the hour, I received an official email from the Maryland Emergency Management Administration, outlining specifically what the governor wanted: 600 additional riot-equipped police officers, 50 prisoner-transport vehicles and at least 10 armored vehicles. That’s when I said, “You know what? I’m going to answer the governor’s call.”
After watching police officers get critically injured by bricks, cinder blocks and bottles, I said, “I’m not going to sit here on my ass and watch my colleagues get their butts handed to ’em.”
We left here Monday night, April 27, at 11:45 p.m., after having worked all day. We arrived in Baltimore City with an MRAP [Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle] and a convoy of police vehicles at 2:10 a.m. As we rolled up I detected this putrid smell. It was the smell of tires burning, of a city burning.
I arrived at Baltimore City Police Headquarters and left my guys on the street to man our vehicles while I checked in with command staff and received our assignments. I noticed a BPD prisoner transport vehicle parked out front with its side windows and front windshield shattered, apparently from the earlier violence.
I saw pockets of worn-out people working and stacks of pizza boxes numbering in the hundreds. It was clear this situation was still unfolding.
They assigned me a city police radio. We listened as officers screamed for assistance, that they were under attack. The response was: “Hold the line/Retreat. Hold the line/Retreat.”
“They’re flanking us on the left; they’re flanking us on the right” came the cries over the police radio. It tore at our hearts to hear these men and women -— our brothers and sisters — clearly under siege, repeatedly being told to stand down. Our unit spent the next several hours controlling the flow of both pedestrian and vehicular traffic, including the incoming tidal wave of media arriving in the city.
I was at City Hall with Sgt. Benson Propst as daybreak approached. Sgt. Propst knelt down to pick up a flyer that had blown within the barriers around City Hall. The flyer had been distributed by the Black Attorneys for Justice, an organization on whose behalf attorney Malik Shabazz would mobilize in full force for the promotion of civil unrest. In bold black print it read: “SHUT THEM DOWN,” advertising several upcoming protests and demonstrations. Its inflammatory rhetoric would be interrupted, ironically, not long thereafter by several residents of the city, who were stopping by to thank the deputies and me for being there to protect them. Like me, they were still struggling within a fog of disbelief.
Sometime around 6:30 or 7 a.m., I began seeing a large number of satellite trucks taking position around City Hall, outside of our established perimeter. I walked into City Hall to ascertain who would be allowed through the newly erected steel barriers and into the building. I was told that members of the Bloods and Crips would be arriving shortly and that I was to allow them ingress to City Hall. I walked back outside to see dozens of Maryland State Troopers and Maryland National Guardsmen arriving at City Hall, taking up positions around the front of the building. Frenzied media personnel from all over the world were furiously jockeying for position so that their cameras could capture every lurid moment of this unfolding chapter of American history.
Lt. Pat Metzger of the Maryland State Police, a fellow Eastern Shore boy and Wicomico County resident, approached me, nodding in the direction of the contingent of gang members that was approaching our location. They were in the company of a well-dressed African-American, a retired Maryland State Trooper named Neill Franklin, whom I’d worked with for many years before I retired from the Maryland State Police. Neill is a Baltimore City resident and the executive director of the national group known as LEAP — Law Enforcement Against Prohibition — a marijuana legalization and advocacy group. He saw me and immediately wrapped his arms around me, thanking me for being there. He said, “Mike, you don’t know how much it means to me that you’re here to help our city.” He then wept while holding onto me for what seemed like a minute.
With helicopters circling overhead and the media swelling by the second, we ushered Neill and his gangbangers into City Hall. I’d been told they were meeting to “negotiate” an agreement with city council members not to attack law-enforcement personnel attempting to restore calm to the city. Stunned by this encounter, I walked back to BPD headquarters, to retrieve food and beverages for those troopers and guardsmen holding the line.
I started to recognize several reporters. I saw Geraldo Rivera walk through our barricade with a BPD commander after having been denied entry by one of my deputies. I shook hands with him and said, “Welcome to Baltimore City, Mr. Rivera.” Minutes later, I saw Anderson Cooper and others. I consented to several interviews regarding Wicomico County’s response to the rioting and looting, offering my standard no-nonsense approach. I did struggle somewhat to understand the reporter from Al Jazeera TV, but I was touched when she later sent me a very sweet email thanking me for the interview.
One of my favorite interviews that day was with our own Maxine Bentzel of WBOC, who’d come up to cover the riot. She was very much the professional during a very chaotic situation. As I looked at what was unfolding around us, it became increasingly clear that this particular moment in time would echo far beyond the borders of Baltimore City.
At one point during the day, I counted 11 helicopters in the sky, with an average of seven or eight at any given time. The crowd was growing by the second. Many BPD officers were returning in badly damaged police cars, some carrying five officers within. Even though we immediately opened the steel barriers to allow them into the restricted area, each one stopped to thank us for coming to assist them, some apologizing for us having to be there at all. Many complained about the mayor’s orders to stand down, also citing the BPD lieutenant colonel who’d directed them to do so.
Hell, I’d heard those orders. It was no secret. These cops could have easily handled the situation themselves and arrested most if not all those responsible for looting and burning the city. Instead, they were ordered not to: “Allow them to express their frustration,” they were told, “Give them room to express their anger.”
Hours later, I was asked to move our MRAP from the BPD headquarters to nearby City Hall, so that it might serve as a deterrent to those who only hours earlier had critically injured police officers — and gotten away with it. Those bastards, I’d said to myself.
Make no mistake about it: I was pissed.
We didn’t leave this post until 3:30 that afternoon. For 12-and-a-half hours, we manned checkpoints on East Fayette Street without rest. We did eat, however, because a lot of people brought us food. One woman and her sister dropped off 300 freshly made sandwiches. Cases of soda and water kept coming.
Two large cardboard cases of bananas were dropped off to us, as well. I went around to every deputy, Maryland State Trooper and National Guardsman at City Hall with drinks and bananas and insisted they take some. “You gotta keep up your energy, boys,” I said. “You’re gonna be here awhile; there’s no shame in having a sandwich.”
My guys had been out all of Monday night, Tuesday Morning and now into Tuesday afternoon. We needed relief.
I asked a police commander where they were housing the cops who’d come there to help. A major replied: “Sir, we hadn’t thought about that yet.” On that note, I jumped in my Tahoe and headed to a Days Inn I know. I walked inside and said, “I need six rooms for 12 guys.” Next thing I knew, she said, “I’m giving you 12 rooms, and it’s not going to cost you a thing.
It’s 4:30 p.m. now. We’d agreed to meet in the lobby four hours later. Most of those deputies never slept; instead, they’re texting their families, their children, saying, “Daddy’s okay. We’ll see you soon. We don’t know when we’re coming home.”
I did sleep. I’d been up since 5 a.m. Monday, and I was exhausted. I turned down the volume on my police radio, put my cell phones on vibrate and died. When we regrouped later on, we were sent to Pennsylvania Avenue, where Freddie Gray had been arrested. After jumping out of our vehicles to move several large trash receptacles that had been put in our path, I was somewhat overcome by the teargas that had filled the air. I rinsed my eyes out with a bottle of water as Deputy Matt Cook and I led the MRAP down several side streets where gangbangers, their faces hidden by bandanas, made hostile gestures toward us.
When we first got out of the MRAP, we were at the intersection of W. North Avenue and Cumberland St., near ground zero. That’s what they were calling the area near the CVS Pharmacy that was seen on national TV being looted and burned. There’s a church there called Simmons Memorial Baptist Church. A beautiful stone church. Trying to gain some situational awareness, we turned and looked into the double-glass doors of this church. Several women, standing just behind these locked doors, were giving us double middle fingers from within. They pressed their hands against the glass, to make sure we saw them. In disbelief, I took my cell-phone camera out to photograph them, but several of them took off.
When we arrived on the scene, I was asked to do an interview with Fox News. That was Tuesday night — just hours after all hell broke loose. I tell people all the time: The media can be extremely helpful to you, but they can hurt you, too. If you don’t tell you’re story, they’re going to tell it for you. I decided that the brave men and women of the BPD, who just hours earlier had been ordered to stand down while being attacked, would now have a voice. The punks who had attacked business owners, looting and burning their businesses, would now be called out for what they were: thugs.
Fox News correspondent Leland Vittert interviewed me that Tuesday night. I’m in front of the MRAP, and seeing “SHERIFF” emblazoned across my vest, he approached me and asked, “Sir, are you with the Baltimore City Sheriff’s Office? I replied, “No, we’re from Wicomico County, two hours away.” He asked, “Do you mind if I interview you?” to which I responded, “No, sir, not at all.”
Do you know why he jumped at the opportunity? I believe it was because everyone in Baltimore City law enforcement had been given specific instructions not to talk to the media, essentially silencing them. Those instructions had come from the mayor.
Well, guess what? I don’t work for the mayor. I work for my people here in Wicomico County, and they needed to see what was really going on and why we were there. About an hour later, we left the area after receiving information of the hijacking of a Maryland transit bus. Meanwhile, we are monitoring repeated calls from firemen who were being trapped by gang members while they were fighting fires, requesting that police come to extract them. While attempting to locate the hijacked transit bus, we came across a fire inside an abandoned row house that had not been reported. We notified a nearby ambulance crew, who were answering a call for service. Hours later, I finally said to my guys, “You know what? We’re getting outta here and heading home to rest and regroup.” We left Baltimore early Wednesday morning, arriving in town at 4:30 a.m.
By noon, I was back in the office. (You know I can’t take a day off.) Chief Deputy Gary Baker informed me about a flood of media requests for interviews from around the country. I wound up granting an interview to Fox News talk-show host Sean Hannity. Since I had no intention of driving to New York, his producers dispatched a remote crew to our office, where they transformed the conference room into a TV studio. Hannity asked, “What do you think about the president weighing in on law enforcement in Ferguson?” My reply was short and to the point: “It’s disgusting. I think it’s despicable.”
I firmly believe, without a doubt, that President Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder have fueled the flames of racism in this country worse than it’s ever been. The president weighed in on Ferguson early on, without knowing the facts of the case. We’ve all seen him do that — not just with Michael Brown in Ferguson but also with the Henry Gates case in Cambridge, Trayvon Martin in Florida, and Eric Garner in New York. That’s when I decided that I, too, have an opportunity to speak on behalf of millions of Americans, and for 740,000 law-enforcement officers across this country, most whom cannot speak up for political reasons. That’s why I agreed to do Hannity — and I have no regrets. I think Sean Hannity is a great American!
It was now Thursday afternoon, and despite the fatigue, I called the Maryland State Police Command Center and asked if they needed us again for the weekend. They laughed and replied, “Absolutely! We will likely need everybody up here tomorrow. Apparently, they’re making an announcement on whether they’ll pursue charges against the police officers.”
We arrived in Baltimore City late Friday afternoon and were told we’d be traveling with the Maryland State Police armored vehicle to various trouble spots throughout the city. That night, we were met by dozens of cars with protesters riding on the trunks, on the hoods. You name it. They were in the streets, basically celebrating the announcement by freshman State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby that six police officers would be charged in the death of Freddie Gray.
The next thing we knew, we heard a rumble coming up the street. We looked eastward, and here come 3,000 to 5,000 protestors and demonstrators. I warned my guys: “Hey, they’re coming. Hold the line.” Within seconds, they were there — in our faces. Many were holding their cell phones, videotaping us with one hand and putting their middle fingers up to our noses, in between our eyes, with the other hand.
Meanwhile, several family members had stopped to position their children near our MRAP, our deputies and me, to take pictures with us.
It was during one of those moments that I reached out and pulled one of the smaller children toward me, to stand closer for the photo. When I did that, the mother took the camera down from her eyes and said, “Aww, that’s so sweet! Do you mind if I get your picture?” I said, “No, ma’am, not at all,” and I knelt own to have my picture taken with this little girl. When I did that, we were inundated by other parents, demonstrators and protestors who wanted their pictures taken with us.
This drew the attention of the mainstream media. With the cameras rolling and a dizzying flurry of flashing light, they rushed over to capture what was a surreal moment for most of us there. From that point, there was a lot of hand-shaking and thanking us for being there.
Then, we received a report that a Maryland State Police cruiser was under attack, and witnesses were uncertain if the trooper was trapped inside. So now, we’re running around the city, the BPD helicopter flying overhead. It was absolutely crazy. We arrived at City Hall to assist with crowd control and unruly demonstrators who were being incited by attorneys with an agenda. After assisting at this location for the next two hours, we headed to the Lord Baltimore Hotel, where my good friend and U.S. Marshal Johnny Hughes had arranged for my deputies and me to stay. Marshal Hughes advised me that the general manager of the hotel was a fan of mine, so he wanted us to stay with them. We arrived shortly after midnight for some much needed R&R. I have many indelible memories of those six days in Baltimore, including those of large rats running across the streets in front of us and alongside our MRAP, seeming to flee the city like proverbial rats from a sinking ship. And of course there were the unforgettable moments we had with those beautiful children. Our purpose there was bigger than we had realized.
Saturday, at noon, we went back to work. We were assigned to Mondawmin Mall, which had been the site of some of the worst looting. We had intelligence that they were “headed back to finish what they'd started,” so we had strategically positioned ourselves around it.
Meanwhile, there were pallets of food and beverages brought in for law enforcement. There were little kids walking around the parking lot, and we were calling them over, feeding them pizza, sandwiches and Gatorade. We posed for more pictures. We got more thanks and hugs.
At 7 p.m. we were dispatched to the Jones Falls Expressway at Gay Street, where we were met by a dozen Baltimore City mounted police officers and many Maryland National Guardsmen in Humvees. Those mounted cops looked dynamite on those beautiful animals. They were absolute professionals.
By now, many helicopters were circling. I swear to God, it was like being in a third-world country. Many times we looked at each other, as if to say, “Are we really in the United States? Are we really in Maryland?” It felt more like Somalia, Iraq or Afghanistan. It was hard to believe we were in the United States of America.
While standing near the MRAP, BPD broadcast that a man, possibly armed, was leaving City Hall. Deputy Matt Jones apprehended the suspect as he casually walked between me and several deputies. The suspect was found to be in possession of a semi-automatic handgun. With the assistance of Baltimore police detectives now on the scene, I attempted to interview the suspect, who clearly had disdain for law enforcement. He wanted to be a martyr for the cause. While speaking with the suspect, we heard on the police helicopter bullhorn: “This is the Baltimore City Police Department. It is 9:56 p.m. In four minutes, you will be in violation of the curfew, and you will be arrested. You must move immediately.”
The crowds started coming our way, but they were orderly. They were leaving in automobiles and on foot. Surprisingly, they never gave us a hard time. Next thing I know, it’s 11:00 p.m., and although a few arrests were made, we noticed we weren’t having many problems. Everything appeared to be running smoothly. They had arrested several people, but things were going better than anticipated. We headed back to the Lord Baltimore Hotel. I told the boys that if things were quieting down, and the curfew was lifted, we’d likely head home by noon on Sunday.
On Sunday morning I went straight to the command center with my men, prepared to go back to work. We were told the curfew had in fact been lifted and that everything was running normally; there were no more planned protests for that day. With that, I took my men home.
Listen, Baltimore means a lot to many of us down here on the Eastern Shore. I go to Ravens games; I go to Orioles games. Our National Sheriff’s Association’s annual conference was in Baltimore this year. We all have a vested interest in what goes on there, but these issues taking place in America are no joke. I think this administration has easily set race relations back 30 or 40 years. We still live in the greatest country in the world, but there’s a lot of work — and repair — to be done.
Because of our response to Baltimore City, we are better prepared to meet the demands of a similar situation in Wicomico County should that ever occur. Our relationships with our ministerial alliance, our local NAACP members and other civic organizations are way too strong to allow this to happen here. We have a great community, one that I’ve sworn to protect, and we won’t let them down. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.