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Don't return to a failed crime-fighting strategy

Perhaps Gov. Martin O'Malley doesn't remember what the homicide rate was back in the day when he was Baltimore's mayor, or maybe he's just trying to burnish his crime-fighting credentials ahead of his anticipated 2016 presidential bid. Either way, his recent comments criticizing the rising murder rate and declining number of arrests in the city — and his implicit swipe against Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony Batts — were way off the mark. We would be the last to argue that Baltimore's crime fighting efforts don't need improvement. But we're also certain that whatever is causing shootings and killings in Baltimore to start climbing again won't be fixed by returning to the policies followed by police and prosecutors when Mr. O'Malley was in charge.

On Thursday the governor told Fox News that the city should not "shrug our shoulders while lives are lost," and in recent meetings with city officials he has suggested that violent crime is on the rise again because police are arresting only about half as many suspected offenders as they were during his tenure at City Hall 10 years ago. At one of those meetings he went so far as to present a slide titled "Work Left to Do" that pointed out the divergence between the number of violent crimes and the number of arrests — the implication clearly being that the reason there was "work left to do" was because city police weren't locking up enough criminals.

The number of people arrested in Baltimore has indeed declined since Mr. O'Malley was mayor, from more than 100,000 a year a decade ago to fewer than a third that number today. But Mayor Rawlings-Blake was right to point out there's no direct correlation between crime rates and arrests. Indeed, under the controversial "zero tolerance" policy in force when Mr. O'Malley was mayor, police were locking up thousands of low-level, nonviolent offenders every week, yet yearly homicides were running nearly 20 percent higher than they are today. Locking up more people, the mayor said, doesn't necessarily lower crime.

Moreover, of the 100,000 people arrested yearly under the "zero tolerance" policy of a decade ago, 20,000 were eventually released without being charged with any crime at all, either because prosecutors didn't have enough evidence to convict them or because the offenses they were accused of were so piffling they weren't worth pursuing.

What the governor has never acknowledged is that the years when officers seemed bent only on arresting as many suspects as possible whether or not they posed any real danger to society undermined the bond of trust between police and the communities they serve. The only thing locking up thousands of young people a year for having a joint in their pocket or drinking alcohol on the stoop accomplished was to leave them with criminal records that made it next to impossible for them to find work and that followed them for the rest of their lives.

Only after Mr. O'Malley left City Hall for Annapolis and former mayor Sheila Dixon appointed Frederick H. Bealefeld III as the city's top cop did things begin to change. Mr. Bealefeld shelved the "zero tolerance" approach of his predecessor and adopted a strategy that focused on getting illegal guns off the streets and targeting known violent offenders. During Mr. Bealefeld's tenure shootings and homicides declined steadily until his retirement in 2011, when they again began inching up. Nevertheless, violent crime has continued to decline overall, albeit at a slightly slower pace.

We don't pretend to know what's causing the recent rise in murders from their 30-year low of 197 in 2011. But the answer is clearly not to return to a policy that was in effect when the situation was worse. If police practices have changed in subtle ways since the Bealefeld years, we need to figure that out. If the situation on the streets has shifted due to turf wars and retaliatory violence, as Commissioner Batts has said, then we need to determine the right strategy for 2013. But Mr. O'Malley appears intent on embodying the notion that if all you have is a hammer, the world is full of nails.

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