Protesters threw propane tanks, cans of gasoline, bottles filled with various liquids and random objects at the Montgomery County Police Special Events Response Team during their service in the Baltimore riots, according to the unit’s leader, Sgt. Peter Davidov.
In addition, said Davidov, SERT was subject to verbal abuse and taunting from protesters irritated by the Freddie Gray incident.
However, SERT never resorted to violent means to address the protesters, never broke their lines and exemplified the values of their training, said Davidov, and for that he was “very impressed.”
SERT is a decentralized unit, which means, with the exception of Davidov, the officers have other primary jobs and remain on call for when the unit needs them. SERT primarily compromises Montgomery County officers but also has participants from the sheriff’s department and park police.
Basic training for SERT teaches officers how to “handle protest and civil disorder,” Davidov said.
Because of SERT’s training, the team was called in to assist Baltimore City police in their response to the protests about the Freddie Gray incident.
According to Davidov, on Thursday, April 23, he and other heads of police jurisdictions, including Montgomery County Police Chief Tom Manger, went to Baltimore and met with its leadership to discuss Baltimore City’s request for additional forces.
Two days later, Davidov said SERT sent a platoon to Baltimore to assist city police.
Davidov said that for most of Saturday, the unit stood by the area of the harbor and assisted city police with basic security; however, at 8 p.m. a call was made for the unit to move near Camden Yards, where protesting had turned violent.
On Light Street, a group of Baltimore City officers had been surrounded by a crowd of angry protesters, and a small group of them began vandalizing six police cars, Davidov said. After Baltimore City police were able to secure the area, SERT formed a line, according to Davidov, and at that point were “subject to bottles, gas cans and whatever else they could throw at us.
“I was very impressed not just that day but throughout,” Davidov said. “There were large peaceful groups intermixed with people that were simply looting, throwing propane tanks, and the officers did a very good job of standing line and not engaging with those people. And, in my opinion, I was proud of them by the way they worked.”
One of the things Davidov said he was proud of was his team’s ability to ability to tell the difference between a large violent group and large group with a few violent individuals in it, a skill Davidov stresses during SERT training.
Davidov said in the police academy recruits are taught to use their discretion in the field; however, when officers join SERT, that discretion is taken from them so the unit can act and think as one. By doing that the unit is able to use tactics to address civil disobedience, something that Davidov said it did very well in Baltimore.
SERT usually reaches out to protesters to instruct them how to demonstrate in a lawful manner, said Davidov, although sometimes protesters tell SERT “they want to be arrested.”
“Groups, when they want to be arrested, we say, ‘We’re not here to do show arrests,’ but we tell them if they do ‘x,’ then we’re going to arrest them. But we find it easier when we talk to them to do that – we don’t advocate disobedience,” Davidov said. “We make every effort to give them a wide range to express their First Amendment rights because that’s part of what makes America America.”