O'Malley and city crime: Killings, drug trade drop less than hoped

Violence, drug trade not reduced as much as pledged

Maryland Votes 2006

October 21, 2006|By Gus G. Sentementes and Doug Donovan | Gus G. Sentementes and Doug Donovan,Sun reporters

As a Baltimore city councilman in the 1990s, Martin O'Malley railed against the Police Department's failures to effectively combat a brazen drug trade that was fueling more than 300 homicides annually.

When he ran for mayor in 1999, O'Malley promised to make crime-fighting his top priority. His victory gave him the mandate to launch a controversial, zero-tolerance approach to drug corners, to revamp the Police Department's inner workings and to boldly pledge that murders would be reduced to 175 a year.

O'Malley administration officials say the anti-crime efforts - coupled with a greater emphasis on drug treatment - have helped lead to significant reductions in violence since he took office in December 1999.

Nevertheless, the deadly drug trade continues to buttress Baltimore's dubious standing as one of the most murderous U.S. cities, according to FBI crime data. Annual murders stayed below 300 during O'Malley's tenure, falling as low as 253 in 2002. But the number of homicides never came close to his goal of 175 - a level not seen since the late 1970s.

O'Malley has emphasized better statistical tracking of police activities and enhanced accountability of officers. Still, the department has faced intense criticism for its aggressive arrest policies.

O'Malley, now the Democratic candidate for governor, freely admits that more work remains to be done on crime. But he and others say the Police Department and city neighborhoods have made progress, even as his critics highlight his setbacks and failures.

"My biggest accomplishments are progress on public safety and public education," O'Malley said. "My biggest regrets are not more progress on public safety and public education.

"It's a lot better. And it all stems from public safety. The more you can drive down crime, the more you can drive up investment, the more you can improve your school system, the more you can sustain those investments."

In his early years as mayor, O'Malley was credited with bringing renewed urgency to the city's crime problems.

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, a Democrat, said crime had gotten so out of control in the 1990s that O'Malley's promise to hold government agencies accountable, especially the Police Department, was a welcome change.

The violence and drug dealing, she said, have tapered off at the former open-air drug market at Harford Road and The Alameda, where O'Malley announced his candidacy for mayor in 1999.

Though not every block has been so successfully cleaned up, today, a police surveillance camera - one of more than 300 deployed throughout the city during O'Malley's tenure - watches the corner from about 50 yards away. Neighbors say the problems they deal with now revolve mostly around unruly juveniles after school lets out.

"We've seen a considerable reduction in drug dealing and drug marketing in that whole community," said Clarke, who represents District 14 in north-central Baltimore. "We have a couple troubled areas, but nothing like the blatant drug dealing that we had several years ago."

When he took office, O'Malley inherited a demoralized Police Department. He hired a no-nonsense police commander from New York City, who was steeped in a zero-tolerance approach to crime fighting, and made him commissioner.

In short order, that commissioner, Edward T. Norris, helped bring the stunning gains in crime reduction that New York had seen to Baltimore.

But Norris didn't stay long, leaving for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s Maryland State Police and eventually going to federal prison for crimes related to misusing public funds while he was city police commissioner.

His permanent successor, Kevin P. Clark, was fired after allegations of domestic abuse surfaced; he has since sued the city for wrongful termination.

In total, the mayor has had four commissioners and three interim police leaders. His critics and gubernatorial opponent, Ehrlich, highlight this steady turnover as one of O'Malley's weaknesses as a leader.

Ralph Taylor, a professor of criminal justice at Temple University in Philadelphia, said that how much credit or blame police departments and political leaders can take for crime spikes or reductions is often open to debate. But the one area that a mayor can control is appointments to top jobs.

"The only thing he's directly responsible for is who he puts over there on Fayette Street," said Taylor, referring to the department's headquarters.

Drug dealing - and the violence often associated with it - remains a frustrating, pervasive problem in many parts of the city.

Alvesta Cooper, head of the Nehemiah Homeowners' Association of Sandtown-Winchester, a West Baltimore neighborhood that has faced crime problems for years, said she thinks the violence and the drug dealing haven't changed much.

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