Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, the gubernatorial primary rival to Mayor Martin O'Malley, said yesterday that the mayor's claims of overseeing the biggest drop in violent crime in the nation are "very suspect" and should be subjected to an independent audit.
Speaking in the basement of an East Baltimore church, Duncan, a Democrat, said his opponent artificially inflated crime numbers for the year before he took office to make his record look more impressive.
Duncan referred to questions raised by criminologists in a Sun article last week about an audit O'Malley commissioned of Baltimore's crime statistics from 1999 and said the mayor has let his political ambitions get in the way of an honest assessment of his constituents' safety.
"Asking people to believe the numbers while they can see the problems with their own lives is not leadership," Duncan said. "We need to go way beyond the political fighting, the partisanship, the unchecked egos that we've seen in the last few years. We need an adult in this situation. We need an adult as governor."
O'Malley called Duncan's attacks "desperate" and chided him for trying to advance in the polls by bashing Baltimore. A member of the mayor's staff, who attended the Duncan event, distributed statistics afterward showing that violent crime in Montgomery County has increased 23 percent since 1999. Duncan's camp countered that overall crime in the county is down since the executive took office 11 years ago.
"He's very good at being sort of a stereo-city-basher with Governor Ehrlich," O'Malley said of Duncan and said the county executive runs a "campaign of negativity" and treats Baltimore "as if it were a pariah."
The exchange underscored the political significance of crime in the race for governor and the challenges faced by O'Malley in trying to convince voters that his stewardship has led to a safer city. If O'Malley wins the Democratic nomination, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, could level similar accusations during the general election.
News last week that Ehrlich has funded an audit of crime statistics made some local officials believe he is laying the foundation for just such an attack.
The Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention is spending $340,000 on a study of crime statistics reported to the FBI by Baltimore and four large counties. The study is due to be completed in August, just before the primary and general elections, but Alex Ray, a spokesman for the office, has said the study was born of a desire to improve crime control. Politics had nothing to do with it, Ray said.
Duncan said he approves of the study but thinks it needs to be expanded statewide. He said he would welcome scrutiny of his county's crime figures, as well.
"It's time for an honest discussion about the crime problem in Baltimore," he said. "No playing games with numbers. No putting partisan politics ahead of the needs of people."
O'Malley has repeatedly said that Baltimore's violent crime - homicides, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults - is down "nearly 40 percent" between 1999 and 2004 - from 18,630 incidents to 11,667.
The mayor also claims that the reduction, 37.4 percent, leads the nation's big cities.
But the comparison has come under question because the 1999 crime statistics underwent a comprehensive audit commissioned by O'Malley that significantly increased reported incidents of violent crime for Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's final year. O'Malley took office in December 1999.
Before the audit, Schmoke's police department recorded 15,245 violent crimes in 1999. Compared with the pre-audited number for 2004, Baltimore's violent crime is down 23.5 percent, a rate that would rank sixth among big cities during that time frame.
Several criminologists have said it is inaccurate to proclaim a 37.4 percent reduction unless the 2004 figures undergo the same extensive scrutiny.
O'Malley said the FBI was brought in to help with the 1999 audit to ensure an accurate benchmark from which to gauge Baltimore's progress. Still, he said he had no objection to an outside review of the numbers recorded by the city since then.
He said the 1999 audit led to new reporting procedures and more accurate statistics.
"You won't find many departments in America that go to the lengths we do," he said.
Duncan's criticism came as he unveiled a series of campaign proposals to make the state more involved in local crime-fighting efforts.
If elected, he said, he would allocate state funds to put 1,000 more police on the streets; create crime task forces to coordinate efforts of health departments, housing and zoning agencies, and community groups; allow state police to assist local departments; increase staffing and improve training in prisons and correctional institutions; and expand drug treatment programs.
"You have my commitment that I will make the state a full partner in fighting crime and reducing homicide in neighborhoods all across the state of Maryland," Duncan said.
But most of his remarks in Baltimore yesterday were focused on criticizing his opponent's record in reducing crime, a subject that has earned him rebukes in the past from Democratic Party leaders who accused him of Baltimore-bashing.
Duncan acknowledged that complaint yesterday, and said his "criticism is not with the people of Baltimore. It's with the people who make promises in election years and fail to deliver."
O'Malley promised in his 1999 campaign to reduce homicides to 175 a year, a goal he has not met. Last year, the city recorded 268 killings, a slight dip from 2004.
The mayor said he had no regrets about establishing high expectations.
"It's not for lack of trying, and it's not for lack of setting goals," O'Malley said.
He criticized the U.S. attorney's office for not prosecuting more gun cases and the governor for not being a full partner in city affairs. O'Malley said the state has "a governor that drives more golf balls than progress on public safety."
Violent crime dropped significantly in Montgomery County during Duncan's first two terms in office in the 1990s, but some of those gains have evaporated. According to FBI statistics, violent crime there has increased nearly 24 percent since 1999 but remains 10 percent below the rate from the year before Duncan took office.
O'Malley said Duncan, who leads the state's most prosperous county, which had 19 homicides last year, couldn't possibly know what it's like to battle rampant violent crime and drug addiction. He called it "something that my distinguished colleague from Montgomery County has had very little experience with."
Duncan rejected the argument that he, as head of one of the nation's wealthiest counties, has an easier job than O'Malley. He said he has to contend with urban, suburban and rural communities in Montgomery but that he has maintained the quality of life there in a way O'Malley hasn't because of his focus on education.
"Sure, there are lots of differences," Duncan said. "But we both are majority-minority school districts. We spend the same amount per student, but the results are night and day."
Sun reporter Doug Donovan contributed to this article.