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After Riots, Baltimore Police Vow to 'Keep This City Safe'

With help from reinforcements from other agencies, Baltimore police say they're prepared to prevent a repeat of Monday night's rioting.
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/ Source: NBC News

As night approached in Baltimore and thousands of police reinforcements remained deployed across an anxious city, authorities said they were confident they would prevent a repeat of Monday night's rioting and looting.

"We have an obligation to keep this city safe," Capt. Eric Kowalczyk said Tuesday.

As he spoke, thousands of police officers and National Guard troops were manning posts at the city's tensest locations, with more backup on the way from New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. The National Guard patrols were the first in Baltimore since the city was convulsed by riots in April 1968.

Public schools remained closed. The city imposed a nighttime curfew. And in an unprecedented move, the Baltimore Orioles postponed their Tuesday game against the Chicago White Sox, and announced that their Wednesday game would be closed to the public.

Protesters continued to gather at the intersection of North and Pennsylvania avenues in northwest Baltimore, the scene of some of the worst violence, including the looting and burning of a CVS drugstore and the torching of a police car. The area remained tense, and police made some arrests, but the crowd remained largely peaceful.

"For the most part, the city has been calm today," Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said early Tuesday evening.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the destruction of businesses, including the mom-and-pop vendors of Mondawmin Mall and Lexington Market, broke her heart.

"The rioting, the looting, all that is doing is diverting resources away from a vulnerable community that needs better," Rawlings-Blake said Tuesday on MSNBC-TV's "PoliticsNation."

"We are better than this, and we will be better than this," she said, adding: "Never count Baltimore out."

The real test will come after nightfall, when the city will prepare to enforce a curfew aimed at keeping everyone off on the streets unless they are commuting or dealing with a medical emergency. The curfew will last from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. and will continue for a week, city officials said.

The rioting flared after the funeral for Freddie Gray, who died last week after suffering a spinal cord injury in police custody. His death became a rallying point for many people upset with police use of force against black men, not only in Baltimore, but across the country.

The spark came just after school let out Monday afternoon, at a key city bus depot for student commuters around Mondawmin Mall, a shopping area northwest of downtown Baltimore, The Associated Press reported. From there, unrest spread to another neighborhood about a mile away, near Gray's confrontation with police. As police moved away from the mall, people began looting stores. About three dozen officers returned, trying to arrest looters but driving many away by firing pellet guns and rubber bullets, the AP reported.

By the end of the day Monday, rioting had spread to East Baltimore and neighborhoods close to downtown and Oriole Park at Camden Yards, where the Orioles play.

Dozens of cars were set on fire and 15 buildings were set ablaze Monday night after police clashed with angry crowds, Rawlings-Blake's office said.

At least 20 officers were injured, and 235 people have been arrested, Kowalczyk said. Investigators are examining video of the rioting to track down others who participated, he said.

Batts downplayed criticism that officers mishandled the initial unrest Monday afternoon at Mondawmin Mall, which he said initially involved school kids and a vague reference to "The Purge," a film that envisions a crime-riddled America and a government-sanctioned period of lawlessness. Between 200 and 300 officers showed up at the mall, where several school bus stops converge. But because the subjects were juveniles, the officers did not use the threat of force to keep them in line, Batts said.

President Barack Obama responded Tuesday during a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

"There's no excuse for the kind of violence that we saw yesterday," Obama said. "That is not a protest. That is not a statement. It's a handful of people taking advantage of the situation for their own purposes, and they need to be treated as criminals."

At Sports Mart, a looted store in East Baltimore, Brian Levy, whose family owns the business, surveyed the damage: 90 percent of his stock gone, the rest damaged. "They ruined our lives," Levy told NBC station WBAL. "We had one location. We've been here 35 years."

Batts said he recognized the need for police to respond to concerns from the public, a process he said began two years ago. "It's clear we need to change the culture of the Baltimore Police Department," he said.

He added, "We have more to do, but we can't do it by destroying the city."