This is progress

Our view: Any hope that the 2010 governor's race won't be a warmed-over rehash of the 2006 contest dimmed with a silly squabble over crime statistics

May 11, 2010

Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has been saying recently that this year he isn't going to let Gov. Martin O'Malley redefine reality. Apparently that's a task he prefers to handle himself.

How else to explain the former governor's contention that a report of significant reductions in statewide violent crime in 2009 does not count as "progress?" That a dip to crime levels not seen since the 1970s isn't worthy of some celebration?

Certainly, the former governor is right to point out that Maryland remains far too violent. We doubt he'd get an argument about that from anyone, including Mr. O'Malley, his likely Democratic opponent. Based on the preliminary estimates released by the Maryland State Police, violent crime statewide dropped to about 595 incidents per 100,000 residents in 2009, down from 638 the year before and 679 in Mr. Ehrlich's last year in office. That's progress by any estimation but still much higher than the national rate, which was 455 in 2008, the last year for which nationwide FBI statistics are available.

And indeed, Mr. O'Malley doesn't deserve all of the credit for the declining crime rate, but Mr. Ehrlich's suggestion that the governor — or politicians in general — had nothing to do with it is bizarre, considering his fondness while in office of trumpeting his public safety bona fides, not to mention his propensity during the 2006 campaign to blame then-Baltimore Mayor O'Malley for the city's stubborn violence. He can't have it both ways.

Governor O'Malley's administration has made some important policy shifts in public safety, most notably the increased use of the Division of Parole and Probation to help local police forces to track the most violent offenders; the increase in intelligence sharing between local and state officials; and a renewed focus on closing Maryland's backlog of unanalyzed DNA samples. Those changes contributed to the reduction in violence, but crime is a complex problem, and Governor O'Malley runs the risk of oversimplifying the reasons for recent improvements just as much as former Governor Ehrlich does of understating them.

The change in leadership in the governor's mansion also coincided with an improvement in the relationship between the Baltimore mayor's office and city State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy. Whoever was at fault for the bad blood that existed between Ms. Jessamy and then-Mayor O'Malley, it hindered effective crime fighting, and his move to Annapolis has improved matters. The tenure of U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein, which began in the summer of 2005, has been marked by increased cooperation between federal, state and local law enforcement agencies in Maryland and a closely shared focus on reducing violent crime. And we can't forget the influence of Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, whose appointment as top cop by former Mayor Sheila Dixon coincided with the beginning of the longest sustained drop in homicides Baltimore has seen in decades.

Crime deserves a place among the issues debated in this governor's race, but it may be too much to hope that we can expect more than a repeat of the ceaseless squabbling about crime statistics that dominated the 2006 contest between Messrs. Ehrlich and O'Malley. Let's all agree that the level of violent crime is better than it was but is still unacceptably high and focus the conversation instead on what each candidate plans to do to sustain and expand on the state's recent progress.

(Mr. Ehrlich has attempted to do this by pivoting to the preferred topic of his campaign, jobs, by saying "the most successful anti-crime program any governor can offer is a revitalized economy." That doesn't make much sense in this context, since crime was higher during his term, when unemployment was half the current rate.)

We can see these two governors' records for ourselves. What we need to hear from them on the campaign trail is where they plan to lead us in the next four years.

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