Mayor Martin O'Malley dismissed yesterday recent criticism of his crime-fighting record as part of a political smear campaign, comparing it to attacks leveled at Sen. John Kerry during the 2004 presidential election.
O'Malley, a Democratic contender for governor, offered his most fervent public defense of his success against violent crime during a discussion of City Council resolutions calling for independent audits to confirm Baltimore's crime statistics.
The council approved a resolution last night that would attempt to create a task force of academic experts to audit crime statistics. Most council members said they were certain that such a review - whose details and costs were unclear - would erase doubts raised by O'Malley's critics.
The issue of whether the mayor has accurately portrayed the city's violent crime reduction during his tenure has become a political touchstone that his opponents in the race for governor - Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Democratic Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan - have used to try to cast doubts on the mayor's credibility.
"Every day that they get us to talk about how we go about proving independently that we haven't been doing something bad ... is one less day that Bob Ehrlich has to defend the fact that crime in Maryland as a whole, outside of our [city] borders, has been going up because of his miserable, pathetic management of juvenile services, which he promised to fix, and a parole and probation department that is still operating off of loose-leaf binders and notebooks," O'Malley told the council.
"This is like attacking John Kerry's rationale for his Purple Hearts in order not to have to talk about draft dodging and not going to war when you were called up," the mayor added, referring to claims that Republicans attacked Kerry's service in Vietnam to avoid debate about President Bush's military service.
The Sun reported this month that the mayor's claims of a "nearly 40 percent" reduction in violent crime between 1999 and 2004 might be inflated because data from six years ago underwent a major upward revision after an audit. The city has not applied the same comprehensive audit techniques to any one year since, including 2004 statistics. If the 2004 numbers are compared with pre-audited 1999 statistics, violent crime in Baltimore is down 23.5 percent.
O'Malley frequently says the "nearly 40 percent" drop leads the nation's 25 biggest cities. But the 23.5 percent decline would rank the city sixth on that list.
"So [Ehrlich] wants to have this debate - 'Oh, did it go down by nation-leading or were you first or third or sixth' - because he doesn't want people to see that crime is going up ... outside the city in the state of Maryland," O'Malley said.
Duncan officials have used the issue to claim that O'Malley exaggerates his accomplishments. Last summer, they point out, the mayor characterized the violent crime reduction as a "50 percent" drop in a speech - a claim O'Malley officials say was accurate on a year-to-date basis.
O'Malley said calls for audits of the city's crime statistics were a blatant political move - a position that most on the Democratic council appeared to support last night even while backing Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr.'s call for an audit by area university experts.
Councilman James B. Kraft was set to introduce his own resolution last night supporting an idea backed last week by O'Malley and his police commissioner: a statewide audit conducted by a politically independent entity that no one has specified. Kraft withdrew it for procedural reasons but said asking O'Malley to prove his statistics accurate is equivalent to asking, "When did you stop beating your wife?"
"This is nothing more than a political ploy on behalf of the governor," Kraft said.
Still, even O'Malley's most ardent supporters agreed that an audit would help prove the mayor's claims.
"We are all in favor of making sure the numbers are accurate," said council Vice President Stephanie Rawlings Blake.
The council's debate comes at a time when Ehrlich's Office of Crime Control and Prevention has commissioned an audit of crime statistics reported to the FBI by Baltimore and four large counties. The results are due in August, a month before the Democratic primary election between Duncan and O'Malley.
Duncan spokeswoman Jody Couser said in an e-mail statement that she doubted whether the mayor truly supports an audit. "[He] seems more interested in smearing the messengers than actually getting to the bottom of the crime problems in Baltimore," Couser wrote.
Del. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat, has also introduced legislation - which Duncan supports - asking that that the governor's audit be expanded statewide.
O'Malley's office said yesterday that the state could not be considered politically independent since Ehrlich controls the auditing agency.
The mayor also dismissed Ehrlich's recent suggestion of an FBI audit, saying that he doubts the FBI's independence after six years under President Bush. But for weeks the mayor has said his administration's audit of 1999 crime statistics was legitimate because the FBI helped craft the review.
Even the city's FBI consultant on the audit of 1999 crime reports, which increased violent crime by 22 percent, said O'Malley cannot claim a nearly 40 percent reduction if 2004's data did not undergo the same comprehensive study.
The mayor reiterated yesterday his argument that the city constantly audits its police reports and that it frequently increases crime-rate reports after those reviews reveal misclassifications. He said medical records about shootings also show a downward trend consistent with police records.
"There's no one in any court of law who can ever prove to you that they have not done something wrong," the mayor said. "We'd be making a lot quicker progress if we had a governor who wasn't constantly pulling the rug out from Baltimore."
O'Malley also said that Maryland's violent crime rate went up more rapidly between 1999 and 2004 if Baltimore's falling rates are not counted.
But from 2003 to 2004, Maryland's violent crime rate, not including Baltimore's, actually went down, while the city's rate went up. Data for the first nine months of 2005 show that violent crime declined in Baltimore compared with the same period in 2004, but that it increased statewide.
The governor's spokeswoman, Shareese DeLeaver, had no comment on the data but said O'Malley is engaged in "a desperate attempt to change the subject" from the city's crime data.
Audra Miller, a spokeswoman for the Maryland GOP, said the mayor's comments are "typical Martin O'Malley: blame, deny and attempt to divert attention from his failures."