During the worst of the riots, Baltimore police say, Tyrone Armstrong made his way into a West Baltimore clothing store to steal merchandise.
Armstrong says he did nothing of the sort and was simply too close to all the trouble. “They locked me up for all the looting that was going on,” he said.
Armstrong, 26, was one of at least 486 people arrested during the upheaval after Freddie Gray’s death, including those accused of violating the city-imposed curfew, according to police. Armstrong is due in court for trial June 3.
Others — more than a fifth of those locked up — were held for as long as 48 hours, never formally charged and then let go. “Everybody in my paddy wagon was just like me: the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Geremy Faulkner, 18, who was held in jail for two days but never was served official charging documents.
Trying to sort out those who looted and threw bottles and rocks at officers from people who were simply caught in the chaos is proving to be a challenge for the legal system.
Baltimore police have spoken generally about the crackdown. Capt. J. Eric Kowalczyk, a police spokesman, said at a news conference last week that officers had to balance protecting people’s constitutional rights with ensuring public safety — all within a volatile environment and while police officers were under threat.
“There were officers being attacked. You had officers being injured,” Kowalczyk said. About 113 officers were hurt, police said.
On April 27, the worse day of the riots, officers juggled rush-hour traffic, large groups of teens storming through Mondawmin Mall and rock throwing. In such situations, the officers who witness the alleged wrongdoing often hand off suspects to arrest teams that transport them — keeping the witnessing officers on the front lines, said Neill Franklin, a retired Maryland officer who trained departments in crowd control. It is only after these officers are relieved, sometimes after a long shift, that they can turn their attention to writing the arrest warrants.
“It is possible you’ve got cases of mistaken identity,” said Franklin, who also once worked for Baltimore police. “Maybe rocks were coming from a group of five or six people, and the way police moved, they could have just been taking everyone.”
Natalie Finegar, a top official at the Baltimore public defender’s office, said attorneys in that office spoke with 82 of the people who were held but not formally charged — arrestees who said they had done nothing wrong and didn’t know why they had been arrested. Their stories were consistent: They said they were near the demonstrations but largely not participating, also saying they were either watching or trying to walk through the crowds. “The quality of those arrests was appalling,” Finegar said.
Of the suspects who were formally charged, she said, the charging documents often have the same boilerplate language from case to case. “We have significant issues with many of those arrests, too,” she said.
Armstrong said that on April 27 he had gone to a protest and was heading home. He was trying to walk from the bus and encountered a large crowd.
“Can I go this way to get home?” he recalled asking a police officer.
Armstrong said that the officer said no.
“So you’re telling me I can’t go home?” Armstrong recalled asking.
He said that the response was immediate and was followed by his being placed in handcuffs: “How about we just lock you up for disorderly conduct?”
Armstrong said that after being jailed, he was given charging papers, which went beyond disorderly conduct to two counts of fourth-degree burglary. Police alleged that he was part of a group of looters inside DTLR, a footwear and clothing store.
Officer David Burch laid out his allegations in a two-page statement of probable cause, saying that he and other officers were on a riot detail at 5:30 p.m. near the store. “We observed a large group of individuals carrying an abundant amount of what seemed to be stolen goods,” he said.
Burch then listed 14 people, including Armstrong, who the officer said “were seen either running outside the back door of the establishment or apprehended inside of the establishment.”
Armstrong said he neither ran from the store nor entered it. He posted a $25,000 bail and was released, but he said part of his conditions, at least as he heard the judge say them, were that he abide by a 7 p.m. curfew.
“When that stuff was going on, they were just locking you up. Zero tolerance,” Armstrong said.
Attorneys and several people arrested said that the city’s booking facility was so overcrowded that many who were detained had to “sleep piled onto other people.” Some reported that they were crammed into a cell as water from a leaking toilet covered the floor.
Although many denied in court last week that they had done anything wrong, prosecutors urged judges to keep bonds high or revoke them completely because they said many had committed crimes that roiled the city.
“This was a choice that they made,” said prosecutor David Chu, arguing why one man’s bond should be revoked after police alleged that the defendant smashed the windows of a shoe store with a 14-year-old to steal merchandise. “This followed a week long of peaceful demonstrations.”
In some charging papers, police laid out more detailed allegations — as they did against Allen Bullock, 18. He was still being held Monday on a $500,000 bond, accused of several riot-related crimes: climbing atop a parked, unmarked police car and stomping out the windshield, hurling a trash can at another city-owned car and stealing at least one official Baltimore Police Department hat. Bullock was not arrested that night. Instead, he posted photos on Facebook of himself and others smashing up the cars, court papers say. Then he posted a photo of himself with an item he had stolen.
“I got the hat,” Bullock allegedly wrote in a caption under the username Tay Tay, according to police arrest records.
Bullock’s father, Maurice Hawkins Sr., said in an interview that his son decided to turn himself in.
“That Saturday night, he came to our house and said, ‘Mom and Dad, I made the news,’ ” Hawkins said. “I got caught up in the moment,” he told his parents, according to Hawkins.
Bullock went to see his probation officer. Police said they arrested him there “without incident,” according to charging documents.
Hawkins was stunned that his son was slapped with a half-million-dollar bond. “Him turning himself in should mean something to the judge,” Hawkins said. “He messed up. He did wrong. But he didn’t start the riot.”
Police allege he was certainly a big part of it, though.
“Mr. Allen Bullock’s actions with the other unidentified males were violent and turbulent in nature,” they wrote in court records. “The disturbance and destruction did not cease until approximately two police platoons safely and quickly approached the location on foot to disperse the large crowd.”
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.