In Tuesday night’s democractic presidential debate, Anderson Cooper asked Martin O’Malley, who served as mayor of Baltimore from 1999 to 2006, to defend his record on policing against the claim that his approach to fighting crime in his city led to the unrest that followed Freddie Gray’s death.
O’Malley replied with a line he has used many times before—that when he first ran for mayor, Baltimore was “the most violent, addicted and abandoned city in America”—and claimed that his administration put the city “on a path to reduce violent crime more than any other major city in America.” In fact, as this Washington Post article notes, the reduction Baltimore saw in its violent crime rate between 1999 and 2009 was less steep than that seen in Los Angeles and New York City; it’s also important to note that cities all across the country saw big declines in crime during the same period, and there’s no consensus among criminologists about what drove them.
“We’ve saved over a thousand lives in Baltimore in the last 15 years of people working together, and the vast majority of them were young and poor and black,” O’Malley said. “It wasn’t easy on any day. But we saved lives and we gave our city a better future improving police and community relations every single day that I was in office.”
David Simon, the creator of HBO’s The Wire and a former crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun, has a different perspective on O’Malley’s record on policing. He told the Marshall Project earlier this year in a wide-ranging interview that O’Malley was “the stake through the heart of police procedure in Baltimore.”
“He destroyed police work in some real respects,” said Simon, who has been quoted as saying in the past that O’Malley partly inspired the character of Thomas Carcetti from The Wire’s third and fourth seasons. “Whatever was left of it when he took over the police department, if there were two bricks together that were the suggestion of an edifice that you could have called meaningful police work, he found a way to pull them apart.”
Simon elaborated on the Baltimore approach to fighting crime under O’Malley:
The department began sweeping the streets of the inner city, taking bodies on ridiculous humbles, mass arrests, sending thousands of people to city jail, hundreds every night, thousands in a month. They actually had police supervisors stationed with printed forms at the city jail – forms that said, essentially, you can go home now if you sign away any liability the city has for false arrest, or you can not sign the form and spend the weekend in jail until you see a court commissioner. And tens of thousands of people signed that form.
Martin O’Malley’s logic was pretty basic: If we clear the streets, they’ll stop shooting at each other. We’ll lower the murder rate because there will be no one on the corners.
The interview indicates that Simon would agree with the premise of Anderson Cooper’s question—that O’Malley’s tactics created a climate of racial strife in Baltimore and contributed to the explosion of anger that followed Freddie Gray’s death:
The mass arrests made clear, we can lock up anybody, we don’t have to figure out who’s committing crimes, we don’t have to investigate anything, we just gather all the bodies — everybody goes to jail. And yet people were scared enough of crime in those years that O’Malley had his supporters for this policy, council members and community leaders who thought, They’re all just thugs.