WASHINGTON — In a sweeping address that explored the racial dynamics of the criminal justice system, Hillary Clinton called Wednesday for an end to "the era of mass incarceration" of black men and said the violence in Baltimore demanded political leaders take a new approach to law enforcement.
The speech, in which Clinton also endorsed equipping police with body cameras, thrust the death of Freddie Gray into presidential politics.
"What we have seen in Baltimore should — indeed, I think, does — tear at our soul," Clinton told an audience at Columbia University.
"We have to come to terms with some hard truths about race and justice in America," she said. "There is something profoundly wrong when African-American men are still far more likely to be stopped and searched by police, charged with crimes, and sentenced to longer prison terms than are meted out to their white counterparts."
The death of Gray, a black man who suffered a spinal-cord injury in police custody, and the subsequent protests and riots, gave Clinton an opportunity to speak on an issue that one of her potential challengers — former Maryland governor and Baltimore mayor Martin O'Malley — has long had to himself: police strategy.
O'Malley, who has said he'll make up his mind about whether to run for president next month, frequently points to his efforts to reduce crime in Baltimore during his time in City Hall.
Yet the long-simmering tensions in Baltimore that have resurfaced are bringing back old questions about how O'Malley achieved those successes.
After cutting short an overseas trip this week to return to the city, O'Malley was heckled on Tuesday for the "zero tolerance" police strategy he adopted as mayor.
In 2005, more than 100,000 people were arrested in a city of 640,000. That led to a lawsuit that the city settled after O'Malley's tenure for $870,000.
When O'Malley returned to the streets Wednesday to meet with Baltimore residents, many seemed genuinely glad for his presence. Some stopped to talk with him; others posed for photos as he helped distribute food at a Catholic church in Sandtown-Winchester.
O'Malley defended his policies.
"In all my years as mayor I never had one community leader ever ask for less of a police presence in their neighborhood," O'Malley said. "Every mayor in his or her time does their very best to get the balance right, to save as many lives as possible."
As to the heckling a day before, O'Malley said that it "goes with the territory of being a city mayor."
Clinton also brings baggage to the debate. When she was first lady, advising the White House on policy, her husband imposed some of the nation's toughest sentencing laws.
As she spoke Wednesday about the increase in incarcerations over the last 20 to 30 years, she left unmentioned how Bill Clinton's administration contributed to that trend.
"There has been a seismic shift in criminal justice politics," said Inimai M. Chettiar, a program director at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. "People who once based their campaigns on being the most punitive are now basing their campaigns on having the best ideas to reduce mass incarceration."
Racial tension in criminal justice and Gray's case specifically have also become a factor in the contest to replace retiring Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who is considering a run for Senate, has spent considerable time in the city in recent days, marching with clergy and urging calm during frequent national television appearances.
Democratic Rep. Donna F. Edwards of Prince George's County, who is running for the seat, wrote an op-ed article that appeared Wednesday on the website of The Washington Post about the discussions she has had with her son.
"I've always told my son that most police officers are good people who protect our communities and risk their lives for our safety," she wrote. "And yet, as black mothers, we know our sons' vulnerability is measured by the exceptions that feel like the rule."
Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County, who is also running, described the criminal focus in the war on drugs as a "fundamental mistake."
"And the result is you're seeing hundreds of thousands of people behind bars for nonviolent drug offenses," he said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Doug Donovan and the Tribune Washington bureau contributed to this article.