The crime reductions achieved to date are remarkable, especially given the city's sense of near hopelessness over the level of violence before O'Malley took office. But the administration's emphasis on good news effectively masked troubling facts that threaten to undo his most solemn political pledge.
Meanwhile, beyond public view, Commissioner Norris has grappled with the Herculean task of transforming "plastic owls" into an effective crime-fighting force.
"The challenges are huge, but only because of years of neglect," Norris said last summer. "It seems like we're always operating at a deficit, no matter where we start. ... Then, there's the youth of the department. It's one of the real weaknesses we're trying to address.
"I was never under the delusion that we were going to fix everything overnight. It didn't take a year or two to break it, so it's going to take a long time to get back.
"We were starting from zero," Norris added. "There was no technology, there was no functional homicide squad, there was no warrant squad to speak of, there was no drug enforcement going on at any kind of real level ... no sophisticated cases. All these things are happening now."
Then, this: "We're still going to be in the 10 most dangerous cities in the country when the [year-end] numbers come out ... because of where we were."
That was pretty close to rock bottom, according to a scathing report released in March 2000. In it, Maple/Linder police consultants hired by O'Malley offered the first comprehensive assessment of the department in decades.
They found "a police culture characterized by cynicism and distrust"; "unreliable and poorly designed data collection systems"; "little, if any, discussion about crime trends in command [meetings] or during roll calls"; an "extraordinary number" of unresolved complaints about police misconduct; and sagging morale among officers over the agency's "tarnished reputation."
While the agency had a "state of the art" computer system, the overwhelming majority of officers said they had received little training in how to use it.
"Members of the general public have lost faith in the resolve, skill, and even integrity of their police," Norris wrote in a preamble to the report.
In all, the consultants made 87 recommendations for the overhaul of the Baltimore Police Department - a catalog of problems that will take years to correct.
Everywhere Norris looked in the opening months of his administration, he found duplicity, careerism, a directionless patrol force and what he called "systematic butt-covering" by middle managers.
"There were some good guys who are still here," he recalled. "But you had some weaklings."
Within a year he had transferred, promoted or recruited more than 50 supervisors into and out of critical positions throughout the department, jettisoning the "plastic owls" from his command staff.
"I wanted to make a statement," Norris said. "I wanted people to see that if you do a good job and you work hard, I don't care if you're 32 or 34 years old. I don't care if you're a woman, white, black, whatever, young, old. You're going to flourish."
Behind the scenes, however, he kept discovering internal problems that hampered the larger goals of "zero tolerance policing."
"All the things I had just taken for granted in New York just weren't here," he said .
The department had no surveillance vans and no video cameras to monitor drug trafficking corridors. There was no capacity to trace cell phone calls between drug gangs and their clients and suppliers. And wiretap equipment was outdated. So investigators were forced to rely on informants, who are notoriously unreliable witnesses in court.
Norris won millions of dollars in grants and private donations to address these problems, purchasing high-tech law enforcement gear - from potato-sized hidden cameras to a state-of-the-art communications van - that has enabled the department to undertake complex investigations as never before.
"He [Norris] can't rebuild Rome in a day," observed Judge Prevas in a recent interview. "He would do even more wiretaps if he had the manpower and the state's attorney's office had the manpower to do it. But they've got investigations basically waiting like stacked planes at O'Hare Airport."
Other problems have been tougher to crack.
In recent years, the antiquated evidence control division in the basement of headquarters has been so crammed with trial exhibits that evidence was routinely lost or inadvertently destroyed - effectively setting free suspects accused of violent felonies.
With an accumulation of crime scene artifacts numbering "well more" than half a million, according to Col. Robert Stanton, the department has been adrift in the by-products of Baltimore's three-decade crime wave.
"Everything from recovered purses to bicycles to refrigerators to TVs to guns to drugs," Stanton said in a recent interview. "Drug submissions are through the roof. We're 30-some percent ahead of where we were last year."