Governor's push for more arrests causing 'anxiety' in Baltimore, mayor says

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Gov. Martin O'Malley.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Gov. Martin O'Malley. (Baltimore Sun photos)

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Gov. Martin O'Malley clashed publicly Wednesday over how to drive down crime in Baltimore, stoking a widening political debate after a violent summer in Maryland's largest city.

The mayor flatly rejected the governor's call for increased arrests and questioned whether state authorities should do more to stop gun trafficking into the city. It was an unusual public split for the two Democrats and longtime political allies.


O'Malley has pointed to a falling arrest rate in Baltimore as the reason behind a spike in violence, and noted that violent crime declined during his tenure as Baltimore's mayor when he championed a zero-tolerance policy that drove up arrests.

"As this conversation is going on, there is an anxiety that is building in some of our communities that we're going back to a time when communities felt like their kids were under siege," Rawlings-Blake said. She noted there was one arrest for every six residents at one point under O'Malley. "I want to allay any concerns out there that that is the tactic we're going to return to. That's not going to happen."


The war of words inspired candidates to succeed O'Malley, who is term-limited and considering a presidential run, to weigh in. Democratic contender Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler said he disagrees with O'Malley, describing his policies as mayor "exactly wrong."

Harford County Executive David Craig, a leading Republican candidate, said O'Malley's administration first needs to get control over state-run corrections facilities before it can be taken seriously on criminal justice issues. He pointed to a federal indictment of inmates and guards at Baltimore City Detention Center in an extensive smuggling operation.

The governor, in an opinion piece in The Baltimore Sun on Wednesday, called for a "balance between the zero-tolerance levels of enforcement" and "the low levels of police response and enforcement that we are experiencing in the city today." Now the arrest rate stands at about one in 12 per year.

Homicides are up more than 8 percent so far this year, and the number of nonfatal shootings is on track to rise for the first time in six years.


"Governor O'Malley thinks that the best way to reduce anxiety among Baltimore residents is to make them safe," his spokeswoman Samantha Kappalman said.

At City Hall, where the governor's piece sparked many discussions, Rawlings-Blake said after a meeting that O'Malley should take more interest in what state police could do to help Baltimore — pointing to Interstate 95, where troopers have jurisdiction, as a main way drugs and guns enter the city.

"The governor has a lot more control over the ingress into Baltimore City than I do," Rawlings-Blake said. "I would love to have that focus on how we can stop the flow of drugs and guns coming down I-95."

The mayor argued that the O'Malley's policing methods as mayor alienated communities and diminished trust in police. "Quite frankly, the facts could not be clearer that more arrests do not lead to less crime," she said.

"Everyone seems to be clear on that except the governor."

O'Malley's spokeswoman defended the Maryland State Police's track record of preventing criminal elements from traveling to and from the city. She cited the 837 drug arrests and 41 guns recovered by state police during traffic stops in the first eight months of the year.

"The hard-working men and women of the Maryland State Police have, for decades, worked diligently to interdict guns, drugs and criminals headed to or from Baltimore City. This has been and continues to be an integral part of their mission to reduce violent crime," she said.

O'Malley and Rawlings-Blake described the debate as an honest policy disagreement. At a public event earlier this week, they appeared chummy and complimented each other's leadership.

"Honest minds can differ, but this honest mind is also fact-dependent," Rawlings-Blake said.

The friction creates a political challenge for Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, who is running for governor on a platform tied to O'Malley's accomplishments and has been endorsed by Rawlings-Blake.

"We don't judge our safety record on the number of arrests but rather on the reduction in crime," Brown said in a statement. "To make our communities safer, in Baltimore City and around the State, we need to promote local law enforcement strategies that are supported by the community, adequate funding, the best technologies and training, and sound leadership."

O'Malley ran for mayor on a tough-on-crime platform in 1999. Arrests skyrocketed to more than 100,000 a year under his "zero tolerance" policing strategies, and violent crime declined, but he never achieved a stated goal of bringing homicides down to 175.

O'Malley's administration reached its lowest homicide figure of 253 in 2003, before the number rose to 276 during his last year in office before becoming governor.

Former Mayor Sheila Dixon and Rawlings-Blake each embraced a policy of targeted arrests, and the arrest rate dropped, along with the murder rate. Former Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III — who led the department under Dixon and Rawlings-Blake — often preached about "fishing with a spear instead of a net."

During Rawlings-Blake's tenure as mayor, homicides reached a low of 197 in 2011, but rose last year to 217.

In meetings with criminal justice leaders in recent weeks, O'Malley has advocated for more arrests. The governor's reasserting himself about city policing sparked disagreement from candidates vying to succeed him, first by Gansler.

"Let's not use empty talk about mass arrests in Baltimore as a substitute to doing the hard work to make this city safer for everyone, in every neighborhood," Gansler said, as he announced his candidacy in the city's Reservoir Hill neighborhood on Tuesday.

Del. Heather Mizeur of Montgomery County, another Democratic candidate for governor, said Wednesday that "community building" is more important than arrest rates.

"The solution is not as simple as racking up more arrests so we can pat ourselves on the back with crime-fighting statistics," she said.

O'Malley's policies got the city into legal trouble. During the Dixon era, the city paid $870,000 to settle a civil rights lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who alleged a broad pattern of abuse in which thousands of people were detained without probable cause. That settlement led to the appointment of an auditor to review the city's so-called "quality of life" arrests for minor nuisance crimes.

At the time, O'Malley said the settlement was not a rejection of his policies, but rather a legal strategy to bring an end to litigation.

O'Malley's call for increased arrests found mild support from one Republican candidate for governor, but two others lampooned the idea.


Del. Ron George of Anne Arundel County said stepped-up arrests could help — but not if the prison system fails to rehabilitate inmates. "They just get worse," he said. "What they learn about, they're worse when they come out."


Craig, of Harford County, called O'Malley's proposal "ludicrous." He said: "They need to fix the corrections system itself before saying anything further about arresting more people."

Republican Charles Lollar, a Charles County businessman who's also running, called it "comical" that O'Malley would criticize the city he once led, saying that high unemployment and the governor's economic policies contribute to the rising violence.

"Rawlings-Blake has inherited a mess that the governor should be ashamed of himself over," Lollar said. "It's typical of this administration, because they've always been about fluff. He wants to be elected president, and he's going to even step on his own supporters to get there."

In the opinion piece, O'Malley said during his tenure as Baltimore's mayor the city had "the largest reduction in total crime and property crime and the second-largest reduction in violent crime … of the 20 largest cities in the country."

State Del. Jill Carter, a Baltimore City Democrat, was one of the first to raise concerns about the high arrest rates under O'Malley. Carter said she was "vilified and demonized" for speaking out.

"People were getting harmed," she said Wednesday. "People lost their jobs and their homes. It destroyed the spirit of whole communities. Police were wasting time and effort on nonserious matters, and some serious crime really went unaddressed. It created a rift between the police and the community. There was no trust."

Baltimore Sun reporters Michael Dresser and Erica L. Green contributed to this article.