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Baltimore City

Report puts O'Malley on defense over policing

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, working to rehabilitate his political image after an unsuccessful presidential run, now faces renewed scrutiny with the Justice Department's blistering assessment of his policing strategy as mayor of Baltimore.

O'Malley, a Democrat who served as Baltimore's mayor from the end of 1999 to early 2007, has long faced criticism for embracing so-called zero-tolerance policing in the city. In the report unveiled Wednesday, Justice Department investigators document those concerns in sharp relief — and find the controversial approach was never fully abandoned.

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The attention on the report has put O'Malley in the position of defending a 16-year-old strategy just as he was starting to climb back into the spotlight after finishing a distant third in the Iowa Democratic caucus and dropping out of the presidential race.

It has also put O'Malley at odds with the politics of the moment, in which a great majority of Democrats and many Republicans are worried about high levels of incarceration caused in part by arrests for low-level drug crimes.

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Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign said Thursday that the Justice Department report underscores the need for federal action to overhaul local law enforcement. Her campaign has called for a greater emphasis on community policing and ensuring enforcement is focused on violent criminals.

"These findings should serve to reinforce what we already know: We must act," Clinton senior policy adviser Maya Harris said in response to an inquiry from The Baltimore Sun.

"We must reform policing practices," Harris said. "We must support the countless police officers across America that are doing heroic work every day to keep their communities safe. And we must strengthen the bonds of trust between police departments and the communities they serve."

In recent interviews, O'Malley has doubled down on the aggressive police tactics he pursued during his tenure. He has argued the Justice Department overlooked other reforms his administration implemented, pointed to sharp reductions in crime under his watch and taken swipes at his successors for failing to continue his policies.

One of O'Malley's central arguments is that while arrests increased, he also expanded police oversight — increasing the size of the police department's internal affairs division, for example — to counter the potential for abuse.

He argued Thursday that his successors in Baltimore — Sheila Dixon and current Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake — undermined those efforts.

"In the late '90s, when we started closing down the open-air drug markets that victimized almost entirely African-American neighborhoods in our city, we also took a number of other actions, including to improve the policing of our police force," O'Malley said on WYPR's Midday program.

"There are certain practices related to policing the police that fell by the wayside in the years after our administration left."

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O'Malley has for months declined requests for an interview with The Sun. He did so again on Thursday.

Dixon, O'Malley's immediate successor as mayor, repudiated zero-tolerance policing and talked about moving the department toward community policing. Rawlings-Blake, who has publicly feuded with O'Malley on the point, articulated a policy of enforcement targeted on violent crimes.

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Yet the Justice Department report makes clear that zero-tolerance policing never really abated on city streets. One reason, investigators said, is officers have continued to feel their performance is judged by the number of arrests they make.

The report comes at a difficult time for O'Malley, who has emerged recently from several months of seclusion. He gave a stirring speech at the Democratic National Convention last month, has appeared at campaign events for Clinton and is again being booked on cable news programs. Some speculate he could be well positioned for a role in Clinton's administration, should she win.

But for now, talk of O'Malley's political future cannot escape its past. The former governor was booked Wednesday morning on MSNBC to discuss the 2016 election. He wound up having to also answer questions about City Hall.

Donald Norris, a longtime observer of Maryland politics, likened O'Malley's position to Clinton's handling of the controversy surrounding her private email server. For months, she stonewalled. Ultimately, she took responsibility and said she regretted her decision.

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"O'Malley's got to come to that realization at some point," said Norris, director of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County's School of Public Policy. "That was then, and this is now."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze


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