O'Malley notes fewer arrests, persistent violence in Baltimore

Mayor says locking more people up doesn't necessarily lower crime

  • Gov. Martin O'Malley
Gov. Martin O'Malley (Barbara Haddock Taylor…)
September 20, 2013|By Justin Fenton and Luke Broadwater, The Baltimore Sun

Gov. Martin O'Malley says he is concerned that Baltimore has stalled in its efforts to reduce crime, emphasizing that arrest rates have continued to fall as declines in violence have leveled off.

The governor has brought up the connection between the two trends several times in recent months, appearing twice at meetings of city crime fighters as Baltimore grappled with a violent summer.

O'Malley pointed out that "half as many offenders were being arrested now, compared to ten years ago, and the city is now seeing drive-by shootings in broad daylight," according to the minutes of one gathering. Next time, the governor brought a slideshow. One slide, titled "Work Left to Do," showed the divergence between the number of violent crimes and the number of arrests.

On Thursday, he told Fox 45 that the city should not "shrug our shoulders while lives are lost," adding that "any reasonable citizen would want to ask — perhaps there's more we can do to improve our level of enforcement."

The subject of arrest rates has been a delicate one in Baltimore — particularly for O'Malley, who as Baltimore mayor advocated zero-tolerance policing in high-crime areas that led to many arrests in which cases were eventually dropped.

Though the increased enforcement coincided with sharp drops in the city's overall violent crime statistics, it led to a civil rights challenge from the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union. And after an initial drop, murders began to rise again.

Arrests have fallen by more than half since O'Malley's time, as the city has since shifted toward a policy of prioritizing the arrest of violent offenders over those who commit less-serious violations. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said this week that she does not believe that more arrests necessarily translate into lower crime.

"I'm sensitive to saying we should have an arbitrary number of additional arrests," she said. "If it's not targeted, if we're not focused on that small number of people causing harm in our communities, in some cases, we can do more damage than good."

In an interview, Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts would not address O'Malley's remarks, though he pointed out that several low-level offenses are now handled with citations instead of handcuffs. Not counting them as arrests lowers the rate, he said.

Batts said police will focus on enforcing so-called "quality of life" violations, but in public spaces like Lexington Market, which he called "lawless"— with issues ranging from drug dealing to double parking.

"You had people who just got methadone, they're on the nod. You have inebriates laying on the sidewalk. You have trash out there, you have large groups of people jaywalking, cars double parked, people parking in front of fire hydrants. It's almost like it's a lawless city," said Batts, adding that some officers weren't focused on quality-of-life enforcement. "We're changing that attitude."

David Rocah, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Maryland, said that if the decline in crime under O'Malley was the product of a high arrest rate, then a decline in the number of arrests should lead to increased violent crime.

"That hasn't happened over almost a decade, which I think pretty conclusively shows that there are other things going on to explain it other than arrests," Rocah said in an email.

"Gov. O'Malley continues to be out of touch with what actually allows police to be effective — good relationships between police and the community they serve — and the BPD is haunted to this day by the reputation that they earned under his approach."

O'Malley, a Democrat, became Baltimore's mayor on a tough-on-crime platform, and from 2003 to 2009, statistics show Baltimore saw the sharpest reduction in violent crime in the country, even as homicides hovered above 250 per year.

That era was also marked with controversy. In 2005, police made more than 100,000 arrests in a city of 640,000 people. More than 20,000 people were released without being charged by prosecutors.

Amid a change in strategy after his election to the governor's office, Baltimore's homicide rate reached a 30-year low of 197 in 2011. But it climbed back to 217 last year, and is 10 percent higher this year than at the same point last year. Nonfatal shootings are on pace to rise for the first time in six years. Overall, violent crime has declined, just at a slower pace.

Arrests, meanwhile, are down 11 percent compared to the same point last year, with about 32,700 people locked up as of Saturday. Just 502 people who were arrested were released without charges.

In recent years, police have seen the reduction in arrests as a point of pride. Under Mayor Sheila Dixon, Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III preached about "fishing with a spear instead of a net" and targeting repeat violent offenders.

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