Will zero-tolerance rebuke hurt O'Malley?

I don't know where Harry Calloway is these days. But five summers ago, when I first met him, Harry was a recovering heroin user/dealer trying to do the right thing. He'd pulled out of the drug scene that had nearly cost him his life — he'd survived nine bullets to the face and body as he walked out of a late-night club in 1998 — and he had enrolled in a culinary training class by day and college courses by night.

Then came ArrestFest, and Harry ended up back in jail.

ArrestFest is my term for late-summer 2005, Baltimore, when police went on a street-sweeping binge, part of what was essentially a zero-tolerance strategy to reduce crime during the mayoralty of Martin O'Malley.

Police set a record, with 8,964 arrests in August alone, and as ArrestFest continued into September, they grabbed Harry Calloway on a trespassing charge, and he spent 30 days in jail.

After his release, Harry disappeared for a while, and people who knew him worried that he'd slipped back into his old life.

Fortunately, that didn't happen. Harry had found a room in a transitional home for ex-offenders, returned to the cooking class and, in February 2006, he graduated as co-valedictorian. "My plan is to be a better man and to help others," he said.

That was the last time I saw Harry Calloway. I hope he's maintained the resilience and determination he showed during and after ArrestFest.

Harry was one of thousands of young men pulled off the street for all kinds of questionable reasons during the O'Malley years. The mass arrests were the subject of a suit filed on behalf of some of those young men, and on Wednesday, the city Board of Estimates approved an expenditure of $870,000 to make it go away. In the settlement, the Police Department said it "had agreed to reject the zero-tolerance policies" and establish new ways to handle so-called quality-of-life crimes, the low-level stuff that had been the premise for so many dubious arrests.

So, officially, legally, Baltimore is out of zero-tolerance policing — the solution sold to us more than a decade ago.

When Mr. O'Malley ran for mayor in 1999, Baltimoreans black and white, Baltimoreans rich, poor and in the middle were profoundly sick of crime. Homicides had been topping more than 300 a year, and there was a sense of surrender in Kurt Schmoke's City Hall.

Mr. O'Malley promised to make crime a priority, and to approach it with urgency. People in Clifton Park, he said, should feel as safe as people in Roland Park.

Embracing a New York City model that used timely intelligence and statistics to track emerging crime trends, zero tolerance was first aimed at the worst drug corners. Arrests went up, homicides down.

I interviewed dozens of low-level drug dealers during the run of ArrestFest, and almost all, including Harry Calloway, mentioned police pressure as a reason they wanted to get off the street and find a job.

Mr. O'Malley won two terms as mayor.

That doesn't mean Baltimoreans, especially those who lived closest to it, weren't conflicted about all this. Everyone wanted cops to respect citizens' rights, but everyone wanted to see a significant and sustained reduction in crime, too, and people all over the city were sold on zero-tolerance.

You can knock it now, but that's how a lot of us felt 10 years ago, as Baltimore came hobbling and bloodied out of the 1990s.

Now the settlement reached by the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the city says that was all wrong: There were too many unjustified arrests while Martin O'Malley was mayor.

The obvious question in summer 2010 is: Will it make a difference to the outcome of the gubernatorial election?

The Board of Estimates has just handed Mr. O'Malley's opponents an opportunity to tag him with wholesale civil rights violations. But it wouldn't be the first time they use ArrestFest against him.

During Mr. O'Malley's first campaign for governor, Billy Murphy, the prominent defense attorney and disillusioned Democrat, blasted him for sanctioning the mass arrests of black people without ever charging them with a crime. The ad aired on radio stations with primarily black audiences in October 2006. In a radio interview around the same time, Mr. Murphy, an ally of Bob Ehrlich, played the Hitler card in reference to Mr. O'Malley's police tactics.

Didn't make a difference.

Mr. O'Malley unseated Mr. Ehrlich and racked up 75 percent of the vote in Baltimore in the process.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

http://www.twitter.com/MiddayRodricks

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