Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee defended police practices in Baltimore at a meeting of law enforcement officials in the city on Monday and said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration did not adequately support its officers during the April riots.
"Here in the city of Baltimore we saw what happens when a mayor and a district attorney disparaged the local police who are trying to keep this city safe," Huckabee, a Republican candidate for president, told a forum organized by the National Sheriffs' Association.
"When the Baltimore mob rioted... it was not the police that we needed to worry about, it was the lack of unified support at the highest levels of leadership for those who went out there and held the thin blue line against anarchy," said Huckabee, who spoke at the Hilton.
Huckabee's comments came at a tense moment for relations between City Hall and the police department. Arrests have plummeted since the riots and crime has increased. Police union officials have said officers are hesitant to make arrests for fear of added scrutiny if a suspect is injured.
A spokesman for Rawlings-Blake dismissed Huckabee's barbs.
"Any person who can't give a straight answer on whether or not the Confederate flag should fly is the last person we should take advice from on bringing people together," city spokesman Howard Libit said in a statement, referring to Huckabee's recent hedge when asked whether the Confederate flag should continue to fly on the state house grounds in South Carolina.
"In Baltimore we love and support our police, but that love and support doesn't mean we turn a blind eye when obvious reforms are needed," Libit added. "We are up to the challenge and will continue to move our police department forward while improving the relationship between police and community."
The Virginia-based sheriffs association is holding its first presidential forum this week. The group picked Baltimore before the death of Freddie Gray and subsequent riots, but the venue will provide candidates an opportunity to address questions about race, police practices, gun control and poverty.
The sheriffs group had for weeks included former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley on its list of confirmed speakers for Monday, but the former Baltimore mayor did not attend. The sheriffs group said O'Malley canceled, but aides to O'Malley said the Democrat was long expected to be out of town and had never agreed to speak to the group in the first place.
An email exchange between the campaign and the sheriffs group showed that a consultant for the sheriffs was attempting to book O'Malley as late as Friday. At that time, the campaign noted O'Malley would be out of town and unable to address the group. The sheriffs group did not publicly respond to questions about why O'Malley had been listed as a guest.
O'Malley has appeared in Baltimore on several occasions since the riots, including in West Baltimore where the unrest was centered. He launched his presidential campaign on May 30 from Federal Hill Park.
The sheriffs association sent invitations to all potential presidential candidates, officials said.
"They were all invited," the group's executive director, Jonathan Thompson, told attendees. "Ladies and gentleman, I want you take notice over the next couple of days... I want you to take notice of the people who aren't here."
Former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, a Democrat, and retired Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon Ben Carson, a Republican, will speak to the sheriffs on Tuesday.
Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucus in 2008 but ultimately lost his bid for the GOP presidential nomination that year, did not directly address Gray's death. But he said that tension in predominantly black neighborhoods has less to do with the police or gun control than with a lack of father figures in many homes.
And he repeatedly suggested the city's policies were partly to blame.
"Throughout most of America, the cities with the highest crime rates are run by the most liberal mayors and governments in the country, and often have the strictest gun control," Huckabee said.
Ted G. Kamatchus, a longtime sheriff in Marshall County, Iowa, said he was grateful to the candidates who are speaking to the group. The Republican, whose home state holds the nation's first caucus, said he is undecided about who he will support next year.
"Seeing these people here gives us a little better feel of who they are, allows us to [see] that they care about law enforcement," Kamatchus said. "Over 3,000 [sheriffs] are elected by the same constituents that are going to put these people in office."