The sharp reduction in violent crime that occurred on Martin O'Malley's watch as mayor of Baltimore is a central theme of the speech he gives as he travels the country and lays the groundwork for a presidential campaign.
But ongoing criticism from the city's current mayor could focus attention on an aspect of O'Malley's crime-fighting record he never mentions in New Hampshire or Iowa: A soaring arrest rate during his tenure in Baltimore that angered civil rights groups and locked the city into a yearslong legal dispute.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a longtime ally of the current governor, has nonetheless repeatedly criticized the "zero-tolerance" crime-fighting strategy O'Malley championed as mayor from 1999 to 2006 — an effort that led the city to sign an $870,000 settlement and that some say has had a lasting negative effect.
Rawlings-Blake's administration — facing allegations of brutality in the city's police department — argued in a report last week that the O'Malley years "ignited a rift between the citizens and the police, which still exists today."
The report from Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts offers no evidence to back up the claim. O'Malley supporters note that the strategy — now 14 years old — has been rehashed through three elections during which O'Malley received overwhelming support in African-American communities often affected by zero-tolerance policing.
But the disagreement with Rawlings-Blake might offer voters outside of Maryland a glimpse into the long-standing debate over civil liberties and crime reduction that defined much of O'Malley's tenure at City Hall. That discussion could take on added significance in a Democratic primary in the wake of this summer's police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
"Policing can matter quite a bit" in a national campaign, said Vanderbilt University political scientist John G. Geer, who has written extensively on presidential politics. "But it's the kind of thing that could depend on how he handles it."
Baltimore police officials issued the report in response to an investigation by The Baltimore Sun into allegations of excessive police force. The section that referred to O'Malley's administration echoed a public debate the governor and the mayor had on the same issue last fall.
A spokesman for the governor declined to comment on the report.
O'Malley has long defended his police strategy in Baltimore. The former prosecutor ran for mayor in 1999 vowing to take a more aggressive approach against crime at a time when more than 300 people were killed in Baltimore every year — a level of bloodshed that seemed to overwhelm his predecessor.
Though O'Malley never reached his goal of cutting the number of homicides in the city to 175 a year, he drove the killings down to 253 in 2003, and for the next six years Baltimore experienced the sharpest reduction in violent crime of any city in the country.
That's the point O'Malley emphasizes in the stump speech he delivers as he campaigns for Democrats in tight congressional and gubernatorial races across the country.
But while the effort was celebrated by many city residents, it was also marked by controversy. In 2005, police made more than 100,000 arrests in a city of 636,000. They included tens of thousands arrested for nuisance crimes, such as loitering or drinking alcohol in public, on which prosecutors declined to take action, and which now are more likely to be addressed with tickets.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP sued the city in 2006 on behalf of 14 people who alleged their arrests indicated a broad pattern of abuse. O'Malley was running for his first term as governor at the time.
The city settled four years later, and agreed to retrain officers and allow an outside auditor to monitor "quality of life" arrests.
"There was, I think, a recognition within the Police Department and eventually at the political level that these strategies were counterproductive, which is what we had said from day one," said David Rocah, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Maryland.
O'Malley "tried to paint a picture of 'I care about crime and safety and my critics don't' — and that, frankly, was a load of bunkum," Rocah said.
O'Malley and Rawlings-Blake tussled over the same issue last fall, when the governor questioned a drop in arrests in Baltimore and suggested the decline had led to a rise in crime.
"Despite the protests of the ideologues on the left — who see all increases in arrests, police response or enforcement as bad — discourtesy and excessive-force complaints actually went down," O'Malley wrote in an op-ed in The Baltimore Sun last fall. "So long as levels of enforcement continue to decline, shootings and homicides will continue to go up."
Rawlings-Blake disputed the assertion, arguing that while "returning to the days of mass arrests … might be a good talking point," it had proven "a far less effective strategy for actually reducing crime."
Under Rawlings-Blake in 2011, the city experienced fewer than 200 homicides for the first time since the late 1970s. The number of killings rose to 233 last year, and nonfatal shootings jumped for the first time in six years.
Arrests are down 4 percent from last year, to just under 33,000, according to unofficial city data.
Edward T. Norris, who as O'Malley's second police commissioner helped to implement much of the city's crime-fighting strategy, said Rawlings-Blake's criticism is unfair. Norris said O'Malley went out of his way to engage communities and seek their support for his policies.
The current city administration is "citing things that are just factually and completely incorrect because it sounds good," Norris said. "We brought in the community. You can do both, and people just don't want to accept that."
The issue has never stuck politically. Then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. tried to use it against O'Malley in the 2006 gubernatorial election, but black voters turned out for O'Malley in record numbers, according to exit polls. Ehrlich raised it again during his unsuccessful campaign to unseat O'Malley in 2010.
There is little to indicate such criticism would be any more successful in a presidential campaign. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani championed many of the same strategies O'Malley later embraced. When Giuliani ran for the Republican nomination for president in 2008, his record on crime was widely celebrated, even if his candidacy was short-lived.
During the 1988 presidential election, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, a Democrat, came under attack for the opposite issue: A perception that he had been too soft on crime. That sentiment was crystallized by the notorious Willie Horton ad, in which Republicans publicized the case of the convicted killer who took advantage of Massachusetts' weekend furlough program to leave state custody and commit robbery and rape in Prince George's County in 1987.
Still, complicated issues of police strategy and race have worked their way into presidential campaigns before. In the 2000 Democratic primary, for instance, Al Gore criticized New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley during a debate for not doing enough to confront racial profiling by local police departments.
Leaders at the NAACP — the group that brought the 2006 lawsuit against the city — said they no longer believe O'Malley should be held responsible for the police strategy. Gerald Stansbury, president of the Maryland State Conference of the NAACP, said the organization has a solid relationship with the governor.
He pointed to O'Malley's effort last year to repeal the state's death penalty — an NAACP priority.
"Clearly, the police problems go well beyond Martin O'Malley," Stansbury said. "There's been ongoing mistrust for some time."
Baltimore Sun reporters Luke Broadwater and Justin Fenton contributed to this article.