What Is a 'State of Emergency'?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on April 28, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The governor of Maryland has declared a state of emergency in Baltimore after protestors in the city clashed with police and others engaged in looting and extensive property damage on Monday. The night of violence followed the daytime funeral for Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died from a severed spine while in police custody. It's the second time in six months that a city has called on the National Guard to help quell violent protests, after Missouri deployed Guard troops in Ferguson in response to protests last summer and fall over the shooting of Michael Brown and the failure to indict the officer who shot him.

Declaring a state of emergency allows a government to alter some executive functions and institute temporary laws until the crisis is over. Here is how a state of emergency works generally and how it might look in Baltimore this week.

The National Guard

The most central aspect to the declaration of a state of emergency is a call for the National Guard to aid local law enforcement if protests or riots are too large for them to handle on their own. A state's governor acts as commander-in-chief of National Guard personnel and can activate and deploy state Guard troops, as Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan did when he called for as many as 5,000 troops to supplement city and state officers.

While the National Guard can also be deployed to aid during natural disasters and serve in international conflicts, there is a long history of states using Guard personnel to deal with civil conflicts. The majority of these deployments have been to aid law enforcement in calming violence, preventing property destruction and looting, and restoring order, but as the Guardian notes, the National Guard has also served to protect protestors from police brutality as they did during the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965.

General Linda Singh, the commander of the Maryland National Guard, was quick to point out that this was not a case of martial law, where military authorities take control of local government and civilian populations.

The Curfew

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake also issued a 10 p.m. curfew set to begin on Tuesday night. Emergency curfews are common in cases of civil disturbances, and are permitted under most city ordinances. This temporary, citywide curfew after the city already instituted one of the country's strictest curfews on teenagers last year. Anyone violating the curfew will be subject to arrest.

The Days and Nights Ahead

The effectiveness of declaring a state of emergency has been debated, with some contesting that escalating the law enforcement presence only heightens the existing tension in a community. The initial wave of unrest in Ferguson lasted two weeks, a week of that after the National Guard was deployed.

Police are generally under strict rules when it comes to dealing with both violent and non-violent protests, and Baltimore Police Capt. Eric Kowalcyk outlined the department's strategy: "As the night goes on, you're going to see us using tear gas and other crowd control techniques so that we can have this end peacefully without any more injuries to our officers or any of the people that are in that community."

3 Key Things to Know

  • A state governor is in charge of National Guard involvement so here, it will be up to Maryland Gov. Hogan how long the Guard will remain deployed in Baltimore.
  • A city mayor is in charge of the emergency curfew, so Mayor Rawlings-Blake will decide when the curfew will be lifted.
  • City police are still in charge of criminal law enforcement, so the Baltimore Police Department will still handle cases of property and personal crime.

President Barack Obama said there was "no excuse" for the violence in Baltimore at a press conference on Tuesday, and also added "We as a country have to do some soul searching. This is not new. It's been going on for decades."

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