Baltimore Councilman Martin O'Malley, the Democratic nominee for mayor, took his no-nonsense approach to crime to an appreciative audience last night -- at a union hall packed with boisterous Baltimore police officers.
The candidate, swept to victory this month on the promise of lowering crime, told the officers they could be tough on criminals without turning Baltimore into a police state. He warned: "Effective policing does not equal brutal policing."
O'Malley told a standing-room-only crowd at Fraternal Order of Police headquarters in Hampden that years of City Hall inaction had stymied their efforts to free street corners of drug dealers and see violent crime decrease as it has in other large U.S. cities.
"You have been continually told that you could not do anything about crime, while you read in the newspaper that crime in cities across America was down," O'Malley said to 800 cheering officers. "That was then, this is now. You will not be let down by the politics of government."
The Republican nominee, David F. Tufaro, was not at last night's meeting. The union president, Officer Gary McLhinney, said Tufaro has been invited to the October FOP meeting. The general election is Nov. 2.
In an interview yesterday, Tufaro said he wants to avoid phrases such as "community policing" and "zero tolerance" and focus on getting officers to walk neighborhood beats and work with residents to identify various crimes troubling their communities.
"We need to get back to community-based standards in law enforcement, where the community identifies what kinds of crimes they want enforced and how they want them enforced," Tufaro said.
The FOP did not endorse either candidate during the primary. The FOP threw its support behind City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III, who lost. The union voted for Bell before O'Malley got into the race.
O'Malley did not say whom he might appoint to lead the Police Department if elected. Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier announced his resignation last week. Effective Friday, the resignation ends his nearly six-year reign of the city's 3,200 officers under Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.
Crime statistics fell during Frazier's tenure, but not enough for many critics, who asked why Baltimore couldn't duplicate the anti-crime success of cities such as New York, Boston and Los Angeles, where reported crime has hit 30-year lows.
The police union has fought with Frazier for years, arguing that he lacked a cohesive crime-fighting strategy and didn't back his troops when they faced criticism from communities or City Hall.
T-shirts proclaiming "We survived Tom Frazier" were selling for $8.
McLhinney -- saying that Frazier had "haunted our police department" -- took to the podium and asked for a leader who will have "the political courage to support us when we are right, and not to succumb to political correctness."
Turning to O'Malley, he said, "You lead, and we will follow."
O'Malley, who as a councilman from Northeast Baltimore frequently criticized Frazier, received a standing ovation when he said, "The commissioner will not be the last member of this force who leaves abruptly."
Though many officers took his comments to mean Frazier's top commanders, O'Malley clarified the statement later, saying that he meant "officers who don't play by the rules."
The candidate, criticized for his get-tough stance on law enforcement, lost the backing of the National Black Police Association, which said his "zero-tolerance" approach would lead to increased police brutality and harassment against black residents.
Frazier and Schmoke have repeatedly rejected such methods for similar reasons. But O'Malley told officers last night that they can reclaim city streets without being overaggressive.
"Police brutality is not the price of keeping peace in our communities," he said. "It is the cost of political complacency."