O'Malley tries to rehab his crime-fighting legacy

Given what he said recently about solving Baltimore's crime problem, one imagines Martin O'Malley charging into the dressing room of a police district station, flipping the poker table upside down and yelling, "Get off your butts, you guys, and go arrest everybody!"

Except, instead of "butts," he'd probably use that other word he used in 2001 when, as the cocky first-term mayor of Charm City, O'Malley famously trash-talked Pat Jessamy for not prosecuting a case our then-state's attorney considered a loser.

Back in those heady days, O'Malley was all about bringing new urgency to the crime fight, and his zeal was appreciated. He considered his election a mandate to have the police make lots and lots of arrests, even for minor "quality-of-life" crimes, under a zero-tolerance strategy.

There were thousands of arrests — 100,000 a year in a city of about 635,000 residents. In August 2005, police set a record with street corner sweeps. I called it ArrestFest. They brought 8,964 cases — a third of which were later dropped by Jessamy's prosecutors.

Still, violent crime went down in Baltimore, as it did throughout the country. O'Malley claims that his strategies led by 2009 to the "largest reduction in total crime and property crime and the second-largest reduction in violent crime of the 20 largest cities in the country."

Of course, by 2009, O'Malley was three years gone from Baltimore. He had been elected governor in 2006, pulling 75 percent of the city vote. You take that result, on top of his two elections as mayor — a white candidate in a majority black city — and you could conclude that most Baltimoreans must have been pleased with his crime-focused administration. In fact, I think there's little doubt about that.

It's here I speak to the Great Ambivalence of Baltimoreans who supported O'Malley and his ArrestFest strategy. Let's be honest about how we felt about it back then. Baltimore was coming out of the dreary years of crack cocaine and 300-plus annual homicides. Everyone wanted cops to respect citizens' rights, but everyone wanted (perhaps even more) to see a significant and sustained reduction in crime, too, and people all over the city were sold on zero-tolerance.

I interviewed dozens of ex-offenders who were looking for jobs in Baltimore in the summer and fall of 2005, during the height of ArrestFest. Almost to a man they cited police pressure on street corners as a reason why they wanted a legitimate job. These men, roughly between 25 and 35 years of age, also spoke of the dangers of going back to the street and selling drugs; some just seemed burned out or ashamed of themselves. But the threat of arrests and more jail time — disruptions to the lives they were attempting to rebuild — were high on the list of reasons they wanted real work.

So threat of arrest was powerful motivation for those men, and I used to think that was a good thing. But that was easy for me to say: middle-aged white guy whose neighborhood was never the scene of ArrestFest.

Not even ex-offenders, who have served time for their crimes, should have to fear being arrested for little or no reason in their city. It took the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — what O'Malley now calls "ideologues of the left" — to point out this profound flaw in the mass-arrests strategy. They filed a lawsuit, alleging widespread abuse of police powers and the arrests of numerous young male Baltimoreans, most of them black, without probable cause.

In 2010, well after O'Malley had become governor, the city settled the suit for $870,000. The police agreed to reject the strategy of mass arrests.

Since then, we had the Bealefeld years, when, while serving O'Malley's successors as police commissioner, Fred Bealefeld officially implemented a strategy of targeted enforcement. We can't arrest our way out of violent crime, Bealefeld said repeatedly. "Bad guys with guns" were the targets, and during that time shootings and homicides dropped further.

Now Bealefeld is gone, and shootings and homicides have started to increase again.

And what is O'Malley's idea to stem the surge? Revive ArrestFest. Make more arrests and crime will go down, he says.

There's no direct, proven correlation between more arrests and a sustained reduction in crime — there was a reduction in crime with Bealefeld's strategy, too — but you probably won't convince the governor of that. Don't tell O'Malley, a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Law, that the costly settlement of the ACLU/NAACP lawsuit constituted a repudiation of his strategy. He appears to be in the midst of trying to rehabilitate this part of his legacy for a larger audience.

And some people will find it appealing. Making more arrests seems intuitively like a good idea; it always does, at first.

But targeted enforcement — quality over quantity in arrests — combined with smart, therapeutic strategies for at-risk juveniles, drug addicts and paroled adults makes more sense for the long-term abatement of crime in Baltimore.


Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad