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O'Malley's tainted legacy

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley talked about the release of the Department of Justice report on MSNBC's Morning Joe. (Courtesy video)

Martin O'Malley says he wishes the Department of Justice's investigation of the Baltimore Police Department had extended back to the period when he was mayor, a time he continues to believe was a golden era of city law enforcement when crime plummeted and professional standards in the department soared. "The report looked at the time period from 2010 forward," O'Malley said Wednesday. "I wish that they would look at the period before that. Because you cannot improve the effectiveness of policing in the United States of America without also taking actions to improve the policing of our police, the discipline of our police, the training and the recruitment. Those were all things that we did during my time."

The former mayor and governor said that in an appearance on MSNBC's Morning Joe, and he doubled down a day later on WYPR's Midday program, arguing that the problem wasn't the mass arrests that took place under his administration but the failure of his successors to keep up his reforms of the police department.

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That's completely at odds with what the DOJ's report actually says. Mr. O'Malley's name appears only twice, both times in the headlines of Sun articles cited in footnotes, but he is the unindicted co-conspirator in the wreckage the DOJ found.

Probably the most pointed section (pages 40 and 41, in case Mr. O'Malley would like to give them a read), details the decision in the late 1990s to adopt "zero tolerance" policing — a shift in tactics that immediately followed Mr. O'Malley's election as mayor and his recruitment of consultants and command officers from New York. The strategy involved a massive increase in stop-and-frisk searches and discretionary arrests for quality of life crimes like loitering and disturbing the peace in an effort to clear corners. "The result was a massive increase in the quantity of arrests — but a corresponding decline in quality," the report says, leading to poor policing practices, fractured relations with the community and massive civil rights violations that led to a 2006 ACLU lawsuit, which the city settled in 2010 after Mr. O'Malley had decamped for Annapolis.

With Mr. O'Malley out of City Hall, a series of police commissioners disavowed those tactics, but they were unable to extirpate them from the department. As the DOJ's report notes, many of the department's front-line supervisors cut their teeth in the O'Malley era and have never dropped the idea that good police work requires routine violations of the Constitution. Consequently, officers on the street are still encouraged tacitly and in many cases explicitly to clear corners and make arrests whether any crimes are being committed or not.

Perhaps it's not surprising that so many officers cling to the tenets of zero-tolerance because Mr. O'Malley does, too. He has demonstrated on numerous occasions that nothing that has happened since he left city government has changed his mind — not the massive protests of police tactics that followed Freddie Gray's death and not the inconvenient truth that violent crime in Baltimore dropped even more after he was gone and arrest numbers plummeted. He kept it up on Midday, arguing that if what he did must have been good because he easily won re-election as mayor.

In 2014, he penned an op-ed for The Sun contending that an increase in violence at the time was the direct result of the decline in arrests since his time in City Hall. He denied that his police department had engaged in mass arrests — "There was nothing 'mass' about the greater amount of enforcement or the greater number of arrests. Each arrest was individual" — notwithstanding the fact that more than 20 percent of the 100,000 people arrested in 2004 were released without charge. He made clear that not only did he believe his strategy was right for 1999 but he believes it is right now and forever more. "So long as levels of enforcement continue to decline, shootings and homicides will continue to go up," he wrote.

The tragic legacy of the zero-tolerance policy Mr. O'Malley instituted is not just that it violated Baltimoreans rights, saddled tens of thousands with criminal records that cripple their chances for employment and destroyed whatever trust existed between police and the community. It's that the tactics make for bad police work. One of the most shocking statistics of the DOJ report is this: Of the 301,000 pedestrian stops Baltimore police made from 2010-2014, just 3.7 percent uncovered evidence of criminal activity.

The Department of Justice report should be a humiliating rebuke to all those who have been in power during the last two decades, but instead we're witnessing a collective exercise in back-patting, both by Mr. O'Malley for his commitment to "saving lives in our poorest neighborhoods" and by current Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake for her willingness to request the DOJ review after the Freddie Gray riots left her no choice.

The destructive, unconstitutional and racially discriminatory practices of the Baltimore Police Department didn't just happen. They aren't mere consequences of Baltimore's shameful history of prejudice and segregation. Mr. O'Malley fostered them with his policies, and his successors — including Ms. Rawlings-Blake — failed to eliminate them.

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