Md. crime at 35-year lows, governor says

O'Malley touts reductions in an election year

May 10, 2010|By Julie Bykowicz, The Baltimore Sun

Crime in Maryland has fallen to its lowest levels since at least 1975, Gov. Martin O'Malley announced Monday, crediting his administration's close monitoring of violent offenders on probation and other initiatives for strides recorded in an election year.

Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., O'Malley's likely challenger in November, countered that Maryland remains one of the most dangerous states in the country. Credit for crime reduction, Ehrlich said, should go to police officers, not politicians.

The exchange illustrated that public safety could become a prominent issue in this year's gubernatorial campaign, even as voters seem primarily focused on the economy. In 2006, Ehrlich, a Republican incumbent, repeatedly attacked Democrat O'Malley for high crime in Baltimore, accusing the then-mayor of not doing enough to make the city safer.

Rodney Bartlett, president of the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police, said "everyone should be proud of the crime decreases." But he said he wished O'Malley would give officers more public praise for the work they do.

"Initiatives are great. Initiatives give us the tools," Bartlett said. "But the work starts at home. The work is done on the backs of police officers."

The state FOP, which endorsed Ehrlich four years ago, will decide in September which candidate to back.

O'Malley called public safety "one of the most sacred duties" of government.

Unveiling figures from the 2009 annual uniform crime report that are being forwarded to the FBI, O'Malley said the state's violent crime rate is at its lowest level "since modern crime-tracking began in 1975." Homicides in Maryland dropped 12 percent between last year and 2008, continuing the "steepest three-year reduction" since the 1970s, O'Malley said.

Twenty of Maryland's 24 jurisdictions reported reductions in total crime in the period measured, the governor's office said. Cecil, Wicomico, Somerset and Allegany each posted small increases in total crime between 2008 and last year.

Baltimore, which leads the state — and sometimes the nation — in violent crime, saw 238 murders in 2009, four more than in 2008. Overall, total crime in the city dropped 4.6 percent during that period.

The governor touted the crime numbers at an event in Prince George's County, and barely addressed conditions in Baltimore, where he served as mayor from 1999 until being sworn in as governor in January 2007. Asked later how the city fits into the overall state crime picture, he said, "We are continuing progress there."

In choosing Prince George's as a backdrop, O'Malley visited a heavily Democratic enclave where many observers say he will need to do well to win re-election. A poll released by the Washington Post on Monday indicated that the governor's support in the county is below what it was four years ago, though overall, the governor led Ehrlich by 8 percentage points.

Aides to O'Malley said Prince George's was an ideal spot because the governor helped launch several anti-crime initiatives there, including a regional warrant task force that includes Washington.

Prince George's County Executive Jack Johnson, a Democrat who cannot run again because of term limits, praised O'Malley for "his commitment to public safety." Violent crime in that county is at its lowest level since 1984. Other Prince George's officials, including State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey and Police Chief Roberto L. Hylton also spoke at the event.

O'Malley singled out the violence prevention initiative, which helps parole and probation agents focus their attention on the most violent criminals as they are released from prison. And he said the state's stepped-up DNA testing has led to 100 arrests of violent criminals, pointing out that he inherited a backlog of 24,000 untested DNA samples when he took office.

Responding to the O'Malley event, Ehrlich said in a statement that "we have miles to go in reducing the awful toll of violence in our state," Ehrlich said. "When we do make headway, it's the police officers and sheriff's deputies and corrections officers who deserve the credit."

Ehrlich pointed to a recently released CQ Press report that calls Maryland the eighth most-dangerous state. O'Malley also recognized that, despite the gains, Maryland remains challenged by crime.

"All of us can see the day when we move out of the dubious Top 10 list of most dangerous states," O'Malley said. "We are not there yet."

Andy Barth, Ehrlich's campaign spokesman, said Ehrlich oversaw numerous tough-on-crime initiatives while he was in office from 2003 to 2007. Among them, Barth said, were "toughened penalties on sex offenders, drunk drivers, and those guilty of witness intimidation. Those were all legislative initiatives that required bipartisan support in order to be enacted."

O'Malley said in an interview that his approach to public safety differs from Ehrlich's "in almost every way."

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