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Berlin, Ocean Pines News Worcester County Bayside Gazette Logo Berlin, Ocean Pines News Worcester County Bayside Gazette


Berlin officer reflects on Baltimore

(May 7, 2015) Six officers from the Berlin Police Department got a closer view of the unrest and its aftermath Baltimore after being called on to relieve the exhausted police force there.
Lt. Jeffrey Lawson, who led the members of the Berlin SWAT team during the trip, said he got the call at approximately 7:30 p.m. on April 30.
“The first call was kind of a resource list to see what’s available,” Lawson said. “Initially the resources they were asking for, pretty much no one on the shore had that capability.”
After conferring with Worcester County Emergency Services Director Fred Webster, Lawson paged all seven members of the team.
“I got one person out on sick leave and six who said they could go, so I called Fred Webster and said that’s what I had available,” Lawson said. “It’s a tactical team – it’s not the civil disturbance team they were asking for initially.”
Roughly an hour later, Baltimore City Police asked the tactical team to respond. The team was on the road just before 10 p.m.
At the time, Lawson said he, “knew just about what everybody else in the world knew” about the situation. “I had watched it on TV. As far as exactly what we’d be utilized for, I did not know. I didn’t know hardly anything about the city as far as being able to navigate. I know when I go up, personally, I usually get turned around.”
Lawson said a liaison with Baltimore Emergency Services called with strict instructions on where to go and how to get there, warning that alternative routes may not be secure.
Driving down Route 695 into the city, Lawson saw “a lot of smoke crossing the highway from building fires.”
“We went all the way down 695 down [Route] 83 coming in, this was a little bit after 11 o’clock at night, and the first thing that struck me as odd was, most cities never rest, and there was very few cars on the road,” Lawson said.
“When we actually dropped down on the city there was nobody on the streets, and that leaves you with a heads up that something’s not right here. If people aren’t down there and walking around, there’s a problem. It was unnerving.”
After arriving at police headquarters in Baltimore, Lawson spoke with leadership and was given an assignment to head to Pennsylvania and North avenues, the intersection near the CVS store where the rioting originally began.
“Going to Pennsylvania and North, we would run into quite a bit of people on the streets,” Lawson said. “You could see things on the roadway, remnants of glass bottles that were broken, stones, overturned trashcans and trash everywhere. I was very concerned about getting stopped on the route and having to defend ourselves in place.”
After arriving at the staging area, the team made contact with the commander from the Montgomery County SWAT team.
“They had been there pretty much since the onset and we were relieving them,” Lawson said. “They were utilizing the tactical teams for security for the civil disturbance units that were online.”
Lawson declined to comment on some aspects of the assignment, citing the “sensitive” nature.
“Basically, if there was any gunfire toward the civil disturbance units, that’s the kind of thing we would take care of,” he said.
The team split off into three locations in the immediate area, providing coverage on both ends of North Avenue, as well as a side street.
Lawson said much of the Baltimore police presence in the area had been on duty since early that morning and “were in dire need of relief.” Berlin’s tactical team was tasked with providing security while Maryland State Police cycled in.
“One of the things, early on when we first got there … is people were stealing automobiles from other parts of the city and Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, and they would drive them in there and come flying down the road like they were going to drive through your line,” he said.
“They would slam on the breaks at the last minute, slide up to within feet of you, and they would back up, tires squealing, smoke flying everywhere, and they would go back in circles.”
The smoke and the heat created by the displayed caused several of the cars to catch on fire.
“The happened with three or four vehicles, so before long you had a whole intersection filled with burned out hulls of cars,” Lawson said. “We would have to extend the lines beyond that for the fire department when they came in there to extinguish these cars, and it came to where there so many of them, right before daybreak, they brought in roll-backs to get those vehicles out of the roadway.”
Meanwhile, the police vehicles that had been set on fire in front of the CVS during the previous day remained in the middle of the streets.
Lawson said he saw similar things, on a much smaller scale, in Berlin and while working at another department, but nothing to prepare him for the scale of the activity in Baltimore.
“There were two or three hundred people involved in the entire city, whereas [in Baltimore] you would have two or three hundred-plus in each area,” he said. “It’s just a totally different dynamic going up there than anything we’ve dealt with. Baltimore City Police – they couldn’t manage that, and if you look at the officer versus population ratios you’ll understand why a situation like that could get out of hand really quickly.”
Lawson said the Berlin contingency were on the streets for roughly 13 hours before being relieved. The weather, a chilly 50 degrees cut by strong winds, added “thermal fatigue” on top of the already stressful situation.
“I had some people who had been working since [the previous] morning,” Lawson said. “Myself, I was out of state and had driven back on a nine-hour trip, and a lot of our people had been up since six or seven o’clock in the morning. Once you get to that point, your ability to function is diminished greatly.”
Despite the conditions and obvious fatigue, Lawson said the officers kept their composure throughout the assignment.
 “Nobody said, ‘I think this is too dangerous. I don’t know that I should be doing this.’ I didn’t receive any complaints from our personnel. I was very pleased with their willingness to go help.”
Berlin police left the area just after 9 on Tuesday morning. Lawson sent the team home to rest, anticipating having to return almost immediately.
Then, the initial order to return in 12 hours became a standby order as the situation in Baltimore began to ease.
“We were very fortunate it went the way it did and we did not have to go back,” Lawson said. “Everything we’re getting through [the Office of Emergency Services] says it’s good right now. I’m just like everybody else that watches the national news when I have time. I hope and pray that the situations resolve themselves and there is no need for it, but we are ready to go if necessary.
“The team held up very well, nobody got hurt and none of our equipment got damaged,” Lawson continued. “Obviously personal safety is number one, the second thing was the mission, and the third thing was to make sure our vehicles didn’t get demolished. Two of our vehicles we took up there were brand-new, but nothing got damaged. You couldn’t have asked for a better mission.”