Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, center, meets with Baltimore residents on the day after riots broke out in the city on April 27.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, center, meets with Baltimore residents on the day after riots broke out in the city on April 27. (Matt Rourke / Associated Press)

As Martin O'Malley climbs Federal Hill, where he is expected to launch his campaign for president Saturday, he will carry with him a decade-old record on fighting crime that is drawing new scrutiny amid an unprecedented national debate over police brutality.

In speeches around the country leading up to his announcement, O'Malley has told audiences of the historic reductions in crime in Baltimore that began during his tenure as mayor. Violent and property crimes in the city declined 43 percent in the 2000s, the steepest drop in any major U.S. city.


But critics say the aggressive policing that O'Malley championed as mayor from 1999 to 2007 deepened an enduring mistrust between police and the community — a divide that some say helped fuel the riots that erupted in West Baltimore last month after the funeral of Freddie Gray.

Defenders say O'Malley's approach, sometimes described as a "zero-tolerance" strategy, was right for the times.

"The governor had a tremendous heart for this city and wanted to see it improve, and tried to find as many effective ways as he could to deal with the unsavory elements," said the Rev. Donte Hickman, pastor of Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore. "When he came in, it was a strong, aggressive approach to addressing violence and drugs in our city, but it still left work to be done in terms of redressing the systemic ills."

Others say the approach was part of the problem.

"He's going around now like [Baltimore] is his claim to fame. I think this should be his greatest embarrassment," said Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham, a former head of the Baltimore NAACP chapter. "It's somewhat insulting that he's going around the country making it appear as though he was some great savior. No, Martin did damage to us."

City Councilman Brandon Scott, 31, speaks of being harassed by police as a teen during the O'Malley years.

"The city got safer under his watch, great things happened under his watch," Scott said. "But you also have to acknowledge the bad things that happened under his watch, too.

"We know that zero tolerance is not the best way for Baltimore, and never was. The impact ... is still being felt today. It's one of the major aspects of the breakdown in Baltimore."

O'Malley defended his approach Friday, describing Baltimore in 1999 as "the most violent and addicted city" in the United States.

"The things that we did to close down open-air drug markets, and the heightened level of enforcement, were things we had to do at the time in order to save as many lives as quickly as we could," he said in a statement in response to questions from The Baltimore Sun.

"But when I campaigned on that, as I did throughout our city, I was very clear that we needed to improve how we police our corners, but we needed to improve how we police our police and we needed to become more involved earlier in the lives of our young people who were being taken from us by drug dealers.

"And we also need to do a lot more in drug treatment. We did all of those things and we also improved public education.

"In all my years as mayor I never had one community leader ever ask for less of a police presence in their neighborhood."

O'Malley is running for president in the wake of the police-involved deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y., and Gray, the 25-year-old Baltimore man who died last month after suffering a severe spinal cord injury in police custody.


All were black men. Their deaths and others have inspired demonstrations and debate over police relations with the communities they serve — including the zero-tolerance and stop-and-frisk policies pursued by some departments.

On a visit to West Baltimore last month, O'Malley was cheered by some and heckled by others.

Blaize Connelly-Duggan, executive director of the Penn North Community Resource Center, walked with O'Malley.

"It seemed like some of the younger generation folks who were shaking his hand or saying hello probably knew him best as governor. They probably didn't have any connection to his time as mayor or his policies of zero tolerance," Connelly-Duggan said. "It was definitely the older-generation folks who were yelling, 'How dare you be out here?'"

O'Malley told reporters at the time that the heckling "goes with the territory of being a city mayor, or politics in the city."

"Our city has for the last 15 years been pushing back and driving down violent crime," he said. "Every mayor in his or her time does their very best to get the balance right, to save as many lives as possible."

Aides said the focus on zero-tolerance policing minimizes the good O'Malley did to improve public safety and address the city's ills: improving GED programs, increasing access to drug treatment programs, decreasing recidivism rates and using data to deploy police to the most crime-ridden neighborhoods.

O'Malley said police-community relations improved while he was mayor and that police-involved shootings declined to historically low levels.

"We also put the city on a course to spare about a thousand young men from dying violent deaths that otherwise would have died those violent deaths if we just shrugged our shoulders and said 'that's just the way it's always going to be,'" he said. "This is something you have to tend to constantly — the issues of policing in America and race in America are intertwined."

The zero-tolerance policy was based on the idea — already deemed a success in New York City — that aggressive policing of relatively minor infractions helps eliminate violent crime. And in Baltimore, it seemed to work.

After a decade in which the city recorded more than 300 homicides each year, killings fell to 253 in 2003.

At the same time, thousands of young men were left with difficult-to-expunge criminal records from arrests that prosecutors dismissed without ever bringing charges. People sat in jail for days, then were simply told to go home. Resentment grew.

Del. Jill P. Carter has been one of the city's most vocal critics of zero-tolerance policing.

"It devastated communities, and it completely destroyed the relationship between police and communities," the Baltimore Democrat said. "It was a human rights violation, and it has everything to do with the climate we have now, before and in the wake of Freddie Gray."

In 2005, police made more than 100,000 arrests in a city of 636,000.

Cheatham, the NAACP leader, said young men were pouring into the organization's Baltimore offices.

"We felt what [O'Malley] was doing was not only inappropriate but legally questionable," he said.

David Rocah, an attorney for the ACLU of Maryland, was also hearing complaints.


"They would spend one or two, sometimes even close to three days, being processed through the jail, and they would come out the other end with charges no longer pending against them but a charge on their record that they couldn't do anything about," he said. "So even though the case was dropped, there was nothing on their criminal history showing that the case had been dropped."

The NAACP and the ACLU sued the city on behalf of 14 people, alleging that their arrests indicated a broad pattern of abuse in which thousands were routinely arrested without probable cause.

The city settled the lawsuit in 2010 for $870,000, agreed to retrain officers and publicly rejected zero-tolerance policing.

By then, O'Malley had left Baltimore for Annapolis, where he was serving his first of two terms as governor.

O'Malley described concerns about police as part of a larger problem.

Today, he said, there is "something deeper going on in this country and that is the anger, the seething anger that people feel when they're working harder, falling further behind, when they're marginalized by a brutal economy, when they see no hope for themselves, no hope for their kids. And this is not the way our country's supposed to work.

"Yes, the touchstone, the flash point here is the tragic death of Freddie Gray, and law enforcement and race," he said. "But it's deeper than that."

Connelly-Duggan, of the Penn North Community Resource Center, says many hold a nuanced view of O'Malley's record.

"You'll get a mixed response: 'Yes my block is a lot safer now than it was before zero tolerance, but at the same time the young men on my block are having an even tougher time getting a job because of these criminal backgrounds,'" he said.

In West Baltimore on a recent afternoon, some saw little difference in the police from O'Malley's time to now.

"When you need the police they are nowhere around," said Reginald Owens, 49. "Other times they're coming through harassing, arresting people for little things."

Duane Davis is one of the organizers of a protest planned for O'Malley's announcement Saturday.

"O'Malley didn't do nothing for Baltimore," he said. "He did stop-and-frisk and all that. He created a prison system. That's his legacy."

For Tyrone Braxton, 28, the issue is personal.

Braxton, a plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit, said he was standing on a sidewalk with two friends one evening in April 2005 when several police officers approached.

Braxton, a graduate of Carver Vocational-Technical High School, had never been arrested. He said the officers began asking them about a recent homicide, but they didn't know anything about it.

Then, without explanation, he said, the officers conducted pat-down searches of Braxton and one of his friends — producing nothing. They arrested them for "loitering and impeding the flow of pedestrian traffic."

Braxton said he and his friend were taken to Central Booking and strip-searched before being left in a filthy jail cell. Braxton said he wasn't released for 36 hours. Neither was brought before a court commissioner or prosecuted.

"I felt humiliated," Braxton said Friday.

Now a caseworker for Maryland Health Connection — the state's health insurance marketplace — Braxton said he has not been arrested since. He still has a "big issue" with O'Malley, though, and doesn't much like the idea of him being president.

"If you're going to do zero tolerance," he said, "what decision are you going to make as president?"

Baltimore Sun reporters John Fritze and Doug Donovan contributed to this article.