The Department of Justice report on all that's wrong with Baltimore policing traces the most profound problems to the 1990s, one of the city's most dismal decades -- lots of crack, 300-plus homicides a year and steady population loss. It was also when Martin O’Malley emerged as an outspoken member of the Baltimore City Council harshly critical of the law enforcement status quo.
Sharp-tongued and cocky, O’Malley, a former prosecutor, had frequent clashes with the police commissioner at the time, Thomas Frazier.
He accused Frazier of perpetrating a "massive hoax” by inflating crime reduction figures. He pushed Frazier to implement New York City-style zero-tolerance policing, but the commissioner resisted, saying the strategy had created more problems than it solved, leading to complaints of brutality and racial discrimination.
When Frazier left town for a job in the Justice Department in 1999, O’Malley had only three words, “Sic semper tyrannis," Latin for "Thus always to tyrants."
That same year, more than 80,000 Baltimoreans voted to make O’Malley their mayor. They had heard his impassioned pledges to make the city safer -- to make Clifton Park as safe as Roland Park -- and they liked what they heard.
Let’s not forget that. O’Malley had a lot of buy-in, even if many, perhaps most, Baltimoreans could not foresee what the young mayor had in store: Lots of arrests. Arrests for drug possession. Arrests for open beer bottles. Arrests for loitering. Arrests and more arrests.
People who were around back then can easily remember what life was like here in the 1990s, with lingering effects of the crack cocaine epidemic fueling violent crime. Every year of that decade had more than 300 homicides. Population loss accelerated; between 1990 and 2000, the city lost 85,000 residents.
You think things are tough now, you should have been here in the 90s.
When O’Malley came along with his single-minded commitment to reduce crime, voters went for it. He won a three-way Democratic primary with 53 percent of the vote. He won the general election handily.
He and the police commissioners he appointed put O’Malley’s New York-style crime-fighting strategies to work right away, and Baltimore soon had years when its police force made more than 100,000 arrests.
Violent crime fell in the city, as it did across the country generally.
But there was a general unease about what was happening in neighborhoods far from the Inner Harbor. Soon, there were complaints about all the arrests, many of them for nuisance or “quality of life” offenses, and the complainers included city prosecutors who threw out thousands of bogus cases.
By 2006, as O’Malley campaigned for governor, the city faced a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP on behalf of 14 people who had been arrested for dubious reasons.
Four years later, Baltimore paid $870,000 to settle that suit and city leaders agreed to officially disavow zero-tolerance policing.
It was a stunning repudiation of the mass-arrest strategy.
O’Malley, by then governor of Maryland, remained steadfast. He said the lawsuit had been brought by "ideologues of the left.” Since then he has continued to insist, with certitude and appeals to intuitive logic, that more arrests mean less crime. “So long as levels of enforcement continue to decline, shootings and homicides will continue to go up,” he wrote in an op-ed in The Baltimore Sun in 2014.
But now the Justice Department report says O’Malley’s strategies, however earnest, led to widespread civil rights abuses and had a disproportionate effect on black citizens.
No matter what he says, that scorches O’Malley’s legacy.
Wednesday on MSNBC’s Morning Joe show, the former governor and presidential candidate was asked about this and he darted around the question, saying the Justice Department report had focused on Baltimore policing between 2010 and 2015, after he’d left the city for Annapolis.
That’s true, most of the report covers that period. But the report also makes clear that the civil rights abuses found here by federal investigators had roots in the O’Malley years.
“Starting in at least the late 1990s,” the report says, “city and BPD leadership responded to the city’s challenges by encouraging ‘zero tolerance’ street enforcement that prioritized officers making large numbers of stops, searches and arrests — and often resorting to force — with minimal training and insufficient oversight from supervisors . . . . These practices led to repeated violations of the constitutional and statutory rights, further eroding the community’s trust in the police.”
And it’s not like all that suddenly stopped when O’Malley left for Annapolis.
“BPD’s legacy of zero tolerance enforcement continues to drive its policing in certain Baltimore neighborhoods and leads to unconstitutional stops, searches, and arrests,” the Justice Department said. “Many BPD supervisors instruct officers to make frequent stops and arrests — even for minor offenses and with minimal or no suspicion — without sufficient consideration of whether this enforcement strategy promotes public safety and community trust or conforms to constitutional standards. These instructions, coupled with minimal supervision and accountability for misconduct, lead to constitutional violations.”
Some people heckled O’Malley last spring when he showed up on North Avenue after the unrest on the day of Freddie Gray’s funeral. He was a popular mayor who won two terms, then won the 2006 gubernatorial election with 75 percent of the Baltimore vote. He must have been perplexed at the heckling and the criticism that he went too far, and fostered too much abuse, in the process of trying to get his violent city to a safer place.
Let’s not forget. With the exception of civil libertarians of keen foresight, most of us bought into O’Malley’s tough-on-crime agenda. We were eager to see the homicide numbers fall. But I can’t say with confidence that we understood, until the strategy was in high gear, what we were getting into. It’s clear by now -- if it wasn’t long before the Justice Department came to town -- that black Baltimoreans, and the poorest of black citizens, understood it best, and before anyone.