Crime Scenes: O’Malley, Ehrlich Spar Over Policing Strategies

… Zero-tolerance at heart over crime debate …

By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

6:57 PM EDT, October 13, 2010

Gov. Martin O’Malley accused his challenger of trashing Baltimore City, and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. accused the governor of locking up lots of black people.

The governor said his policies as leader of the city and the state have reduced the number of homicides to near-record levels, but the man who wants to be governor again said O’Malley and his “zero-tolerance” strategy forced police to lock up everyone in sight of an officer.

“The key is saving lives, the key is saving lives,” O’Malley began one of his statements during Monday’s debate on WJZ-TV.

“Without arresting people who are innocent, Gov?” Ehrlich interrupted.

“Come on,” retorted O’Malley.

The politics of crime means passing the buck when violence soars and taking credit when it drops. O’Malley is enjoying a significant drop in city killings — though nowhere near the tally of 175 he once promised as mayor — as well as decreases in crime across the state.

Baltimore slayings topped 300 for 10 consecutive years in the 1990s before dropping to 234 in 2008 and 238 in 2009 — lows not seen in at least two decades. With 171 killings so far this year, Baltimore is roughly on pace with the previous two years.

O’Malley became mayor in 1999 after running on a zero-tolerance policing program, and city officers started arresting people wholesale — 108,447 in 2005 alone. Homiocides during those years fell under the 300 mark but ranged from the 250s to the 260s in the early 2000s to 282 in 2007, the last year O’Malley served as mayor.

“The city of Baltimore achieved the biggest reduction in overall crime over the last 10 years of any of the major cities in America,” the governor said during the debate, adding later that “we’ve driven homicides down by a steeper degree over these last three years than at any time in Maryland history since numbers started being taken in 1975.”

Countered Ehrlich: “You had a lot of folks arrested in Baltimore City, a lot of African-Americans were arrested, one of eight or nine folks in Baltimore City were arrested in your tenure. … I didn’t order that, that’s for sure. And a lot of people were upset. And it was wrong and a lot of innocent people were arrested and thrown behind bars, and they were let out for no apparent reason, so that’s your record, so let’s live with it.”

The crime numbers did drop during O’Malley’s tenure, but it’s probably impossible to determine whether that’s a direct result of O’Malley’s policing strategies. Ehrlich understated his one-out-of-nine figure — it was actually one out of six people who were arrested in 2005, though the arrest totals count the same people busted numerous times and arrests of nonresidents.

The former governor is right that people were upset. Some sued, and with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, they forced the city to settle. The suit included people such as Travis Crockett, a 19-year-old with a clean record who in 2007 ended up in handcuffs and in Central Booking for sitting on his aunt’s steps and dropping a candy wrapper in the street.

Prosecutors, who criticized zero-tolerance, never pursued the charges against Crockett. But arrests like his cost the city $870,000 to settle the lawsuit, and city police have had to hire an independent auditor to look at reports and submit semiannual reports.

And the current Baltimore police commissioner, Frederick H. Bealefeld III, has publicly criticized zero-tolerance as abrasive and counterproductive. “Did we really accomplish a lot doing that?” he said during a past interview with The Baltimore Sun.

Instead of filling the city’s Central Booking and Intake Center “with a whole bunch of arrests for arrests’ sake,” Bealefeld said, “we’re going to be much more focused.”

The commissioner promotes the fact that killings are down to 30-year lows under his watch, to numbers far below those his predecessors achieved under O’Malley, even as his officers arrest roughly 25,000 fewer people than city police did in the mid-2000s.

But homicides continue to vex Baltimore. The historic lows can’t keep Baltimore out of the top tier of America’s most dangerous cities; the city ranked second in per-capita homicides in both 2008 and 2009, behind Detroit.

And a report from the Pew Charitable Trusts shows that even with fewer arrests, Baltimore in 2008 had the nation’s second-highest incarceration rate for city jails, where people are detained while awaiting trial.

Both O’Malley and Ehrlich agreed on one thing:

“It’s bad guys with guns and addiction that drives our problem,” said Ehrlich, echoing Bealefeld’s favorite line.

“It is true that guns, gun violence and drugs fuel the crime that is out there,” said O’Malley.

Both are meeting for another debate Thursday night.

Copyright © 2010, The Baltimore Sun

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