The Mayor Who Cracked Down on Baltimore

Martin O'Malley is no left alternative to Hillary Clinton — he's a "tough-on-crime" liberal.

Then-Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley at last year's California Democrats State Convention. Jae C. Hong / AP

The recent uprising in Baltimore has put Martin O’Malley in a difficult spot. While preparing to launch a bid for president, the city’s former mayor has successfully cast himself as one of the most liberal contenders in the Democratic field — to the left of Hillary Clinton on issues both social and economic.

As Maryland’s governor, from 2007–2015, he signed bills legalizing gay marriage, ending the death penalty, raising the minimum wage, and funding education at a record level, partially with tax increases for top earners and corporations. But his chief credential — the foundation of his political career — is his claim that he made Baltimore’s crime rate plummet during his tenure as mayor, from 1999–2007.

The trouble is, his strategy involved “zero-tolerance” policing tactics that are both draconian and increasingly unpopular across the political spectrum. Nearly all his opponents in the 2016 race, from Clinton to Ted Cruz, have been scurrying to show support for policing and corrections reform.

And though O’Malley has hedged — recently writing in the Huffington Post that the US should “expand drug treatment and find smarter ways to protect society from repeat violent offenders while incarcerating fewer of our citizens” — his record shows that if there’s one thing he believes in, irrespective of the political tide, it’s an iron-fisted approach to criminal justice.

During his term as governor, even as criminal justice receded from his policy agenda, he quietly blocked any effort at sentencing reform and mostly eliminated parole for life sentences.

O’Malley leans leftward in the sense that it’s politically convenient for him to talk about social mobility and denounce Republicans like Mitt Romney for their “Swiss bank accounts,” but not in the sense of having a viable program to reverse skyrocketing income inequality or drastically reduce poverty.

His crime-reduction campaign didn’t aim to improve inner-city conditions in a meaningful way; it aimed only to improve the statistics by any means necessary, a reflection of O’Malley’s well-documented fetish for the quantitative.

After all, the sweep arrests that police practiced under his leadership — even as he cycled through four different Baltimore Police Department (BPD) commissioners — routinely violated the civil rights of Baltimore’s poor, especially in communities of color. Throughout his tenure, officers were actively incentivized to arrest people without probable cause. This collateral damage never factored into O’Malley’s cost-benefit analyses.

O’Malley was a criminal prosecutor before he won a seat on Baltimore’s city council in 1991. Throughout his tenure as a councilman, Baltimore’s homicide count topped three hundred every year, sometimes putting it as high as nine times the national average. In the same period, nearly 85,000 residents left Baltimore City for the suburbs and neighboring states. With his legal background, O’Malley realized he could make a name for himself by championing public safety.

In the mid-1990s, he traveled to New York and studied the police department’s CompStat program, which used data to target troubled areas and hold precinct commanders accountable. A few years later, academic criticisms of CompStat would start hailing down: that it incentivized cops to manipulate statistics, that it swapped traditional community engagement for charts and graphs, that it encouraged frivolous arrests. But at the time, it sounded promising as a quick fix.

Convinced that it could cure Baltimore’s ills, O’Malley ran for mayor in 1999, promising to reduce crime by 50 percent. He won the Democratic primary with 53 percent of the vote and took the general election in a landslide.

Sgt. Louis Hopson, now a thirty-five-year BPD veteran, recalls that when O’Malley entered office, “His whole philosophy on reducing crime was making arrests.” He pressured commanders to impose heavy arrest quotas, and officers who logged the most arrests tended to be promoted. The reasoning was that if the police handcuffed enough people, eventually they’d sift out the truly dangerous ones.

In preparation for Wednesday and Thursday statistics meetings, officers instituted “Jump Out Tuesdays,” where they’d arrest clusters of inner-city residents for no reason at all. They could always cite laws against loitering or disorderly conduct if they were pressed for a reason, but by and large, David Rocah, an attorney for Maryland’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) told me, their superiors never even required them to establish a credible basis for detention. In the paperwork for releasing defendants from jail, the department even added a check-box for “no probable cause.”

Doug Colbert, a law professor at the University of Maryland, says these round-ups often brought in eighty to one hundred people at a time, four or five of whom might have drugs or illegal weapons. Many of the others were released without ever being charged with specific crimes — a practice residents in the targeted neighborhoods called a “walkthrough.”

Those who were assigned bail often couldn’t afford it and were held for thirty or forty days, only to have their charges dismissed when they finally saw a judge, Colbert says. Many lost their jobs and apartments while behind bars. Hopson says the central booking unit became so overcrowded and squalid, “it was like the bowels of a slave ship.”

At the height of this practice, in 2005, Baltimore logged more than 108,400 arrests — equivalent to a sixth of the city’s population. The following year, the ACLU and the NAACP sued the city, alleging a pattern of illegal arrests. In a 2010 settlement, the city paid out $870,000, agreed to retrain officers, and publicly rejected zero-tolerance policing.

While the crime rate dropped by 48 percent between 1999 and 2009, according to FBI records (which draw on the BPD’s own reports), the positive contributions of O’Malley’s policies are questionable at best. For one, crime rates declined all across the US during this same period — so much so that in 2009, Baltimore’s homicide rate still ranked second highest among the nation’s biggest cities. And in 2011, five years after O’Malley left office and the police department had changed strategies — eventually bringing the yearly arrests below 53,000 — the homicide rate reached a thirty-year low.

Furthermore, many Baltimoreans have reported that during O’Malley’s reign, officers were dodging crime reports to keep their numbers down. Jill Carter, who represents Baltimore in Maryland’s House of Delegates, says her constituents constantly complained that police officers were refusing to take reports for thefts and burglaries.

But the numbers sounded impressive in O’Malley’s campaign ads. On the strength of this record, he won Maryland’s gubernatorial election in 2006.

And he retained his tough-on-crime philosophy. Most notably, in 2007, Curt Anderson, a state delegate from Baltimore, pushed for a mild reform in the sentencing laws for drug crimes. State law says that anyone arrested for possession of hard drugs with intent to distribute must serve at least ten years for a second offense, and twenty-five years for a third offense — no exceptions. Anderson’s bill would have made some second-time offenders eligible for early parole, according to judges’ discretion.

After passing both the House and Senate, it became the only bill O’Malley vetoed that year. For the rest of O’Malley’s term, Anderson says, there was no point in asking his colleagues to support any sentencing-reform measures.

Since then, even a broad swath of conservative states — including Texas, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina, and Mississippi — have outpaced Maryland in this area. In 2007, Texas spent about $241 million on programs to treat nonviolent drug offenders, both in and out of prison. The prison population dropped by nearly 5 percent within a year, and the state has closed three prison facilities. Maryland’s prison population, which has tripled since 1970, saw an incidental drop during O’Malley’s term, but the facilities remain near capacity.

O’Malley also instituted a de facto policy of denying parole for anyone serving a life sentence, Rocah says. Maryland is one of only three states that allows the governor to reject recommendations from parole commissions. O’Malley exercised this authority in seventy-five cases, letting only three lifers off on parole, according to figures supplied by the state.

Additionally, in 2008, O’Malley pushed for a bill that gave police blanket permission to collect DNA samples from certain defendants — before they were convicted. That same year, even while continuing to trumpet the falling crime rates, O’Malley advocated spending $100 million to build a 180-bed juvenile jail in Baltimore.

Facing pressure from youth advocates and legislators in his own party, he removed the expense from his budget in 2013. (He did sign a bill decriminalizing marijuana possession last year, but only as he was readying himself for a presidential run. He had previously called marijuana a “gateway to even more harmful kinds of behavior.”)

Recently, as interviewers have asked for O’Malley’s response to the Baltimore uprising, he has often tried to shift the conversation away from policing tactics. “Make no mistake about it,” he wrote in an April 30 Huffington Post column, “the anger that we have seen in Ferguson, in Cleveland, in Staten Island, in North Charleston, and in the flames of Baltimore is not just about policing.” Rather, he said, it’s about declining wages, lack of opportunity, and an economic system that “devalues . . . human lives.”

But his critique of the economic system is mostly limited to lambasting billionaires and platitudes about promoting mobility for the poor — not pledging to attack poverty (or, of course, questioning the class system as such). And indeed, his approach to criminal justice dovetails with this: it prioritizes the interests of capital.

When the police arrest one hundred people who are lingering on the streets of West Baltimore, knowing the probable outcome is that four or five will have illegal weapons or drugs and the rest will be released, there’s only one way to conclude that there’s a net benefit: if you see the brutalization of poor communities of color as a precondition to keeping the peace.

Pundits have praised O’Malley’s wonkiness, his affinity for translating social problems into charts and graphs and then resolving them with “measurable goals.” “When he starts talking about an agency’s statistics or getting ‘graphs moving in the right direction,’” Haley Sweetland-Edwards wrote in the Washington Monthly two years ago, “his eyelids peak into perfect pink triangles and his voice speeds up.” When Edwards asked O’Malley about his hypothetical presidency — whether, if elected,  he’d apply his data-driven management model on a national scale — he replied, “I don’t know any other way to govern.”

But his charts and graphs did little to rectify Baltimore’s deep-rooted injustices, because the city’s structural problems can’t be solved with more cops, or more “efficient” policing, or by filling the jails with people who haven’t even been charged with a crime. As the recent protests demonstrate, O’Malley’s tough-on-crime approach — a combination of technocracy and suspicion toward the impoverished — only exacerbated Baltimore’s distress.