Probably smarter, possibly funnier.

11 Sep
September 11, 2015

A letter to the editor that ran in The Washington Post Magazine last Sunday in reply to a profile of me that said I resembled Homer Simpson’s smarter brother:

The Washington Post Magazine
Letters to the editor
David Simon’s older brother takes umbrage at a description in our story:
I read with great interest your piece about David Simon, my little brother. I am 14 years older than David, and I am intensely proud of him. However, I must take great umbrage at the statement that “Simon … looks from some angles like Homer Simpson’s much smarter brother.”  First the implication is that I am Homer Simpson and second, that David is smarter than me. You will be hearing from my attorneys.
Gary L. Simon, medical professor, GWU


In a Jewish family, the doctor is always the smarter child.  The TV writer is supposed to advance the funny.  And presently, I find myself routed on both flanks at once.

A good day to be an American

26 Jun
June 26, 2015

Marriage equality and foam in the corner of Scalia’s mouth. Amazing Grace and presidential duende.  And all amid the afterglow of a decision that affirms a successful government initiative that helps millions as claimed.

So, this is what a first-rate country feels like.







Father’s Day Redux: Pickles & Cream

21 Jun
June 21, 2015

A repost in honor of Father’s Day and the redoubtable Bernard Simon, gone these five years but I feel as if I am talking to him still.  This was published in Lucky Peach #4 and while it is food writing, per se, it comes around to my father soon enough.  Yeah, I back into it.  But Dad, I miss you.



I want to embrace the best of the kitchen.

But if DNA is destiny, and genetics holds any sway at all over the human palate, then I have much—probably too much—to overcome.

The Simons come from peasant stock, and by that I don’t mean the countryside of Alsace or Tuscany or any other place where cuisine makes the days true and beautiful, where gardens and orchards and farms and village butchers conspire for a cuisine both purposeful and ingeniously simple. We are not the progeny of any agrarian ideal worthy of Impressionist paintings.

No, my father’s people were kicked-to-the-ground-by-Cossacks peasants, wandering Pale of Settlement Yids who lived with one or two bags always packed and spent the early moments of the last century running ahead of whatever Jew-hating militia was on whichever side of the Polish-Russian border. Like fodder for an Isaac Babel story, we hauled ass from pogrom to pogrom, dragging our huddled mass west until a sign said NEW JERSEY.
My mother’s people ran, too, first from the Hungarian countryside to Budapest, where my grandfather changed his name from Leibowitz to Ligety, stealing the latter from an Austro-Hungarian family of some repute, hoping to blend. Didn’t work, though—a Jew by any other name. So Armin Ligeti—the extra i was acquired at Ellis Island amid a rush of incoming Italian stock—kept running until he felt a bit more welcome in Williamsburg, and later, in the Bronx.

The story ends—and begins—with one grandfather a salesman for Breakstone Brothers Dairy, slinging butter and cream to mom-and-pop stores all over New York, and the other ensconced behind the counter of just such a store in Jersey City, selling pickles out of a barrel and borscht out of the jar.

Both households kept kosher. They had one foot on a new shore, but still trusted in the world of their fathers. They raised children amid a Great Depression, teaching them the value of a dollar and the notion that when it came to food, there could be nothing new or clever under the sun. This sensibility endured well into my youth.

“Your mother makes better,” was a credo of my childhood. We dined out infrequently and only on special occasions. There was a favorite Chinese dump. There was an Italian joint where we gathered once or twice a year. And then, when someone graduated or relatives came to town, there would be a rare pilgrimage to some grander palace of white tablecloths and wineglasses, with mine always promptly removed. Experimentation was at a minimum, so much so that once, when I was eight years old, I tried and failed to order raw oysters at a downtown restaurant. The Blue Points. A half dozen, please.

“Davy, they’re raw.”

“I know.”

“That means they’re not cooked.”


My father frowned. Who eats oysters? Who eats anything uncooked? Who goes to Duke Zeibert’s downtown, even on a special occasion, and pays these prices for food that no one even bothers to put on a stove? What mishegas.

My mother turned to reinstruct the waiter.

“He’ll have a shrimp cocktail.”

It wasn’t that we kept kosher—that wall had crumbled twenty years earlier, when my older brother, a notoriously reluctant eater, was treated to bacon by neighbors in a Brooklyn apartment house. As a two-year-old, Gary Simon took to craving pig as he craved no other sustenance, and finally he began putting on weight. Every dietary law in Leviticus was henceforth repealed.

But as a household, we were residually kosher. Shellfish was suspect, and aside from morning bacon, pork was never on the menu. More than that, exotic dishes—new cuisines, new ideas about food—were problematic if they took more than a half-step away from the known and fixed. My mother was an excellent cook, but almost all of what she served would have been recognizable and acceptable to her parents, if not her parents’ parents. Brisket, roast chicken, chopped liver, chicken soup: food was good and plentiful; it was not a mutlticultural adventure.

By the time I was born, my parents had moved to Maryland and the shores of that great protein factory, the Chesapeake Bay. Yet I did not taste a raw oyster until I was thirteen, or a raw clam until a year later. And, in my fifteenth year, I finally sat down with a knife and mallet and began breaking apart a dozen steamed blue crabs—and only then because my sister had taken a waitressing job in an area crab-house.

When I was in college, my parents offered to take me out to dinner one weekend. I chose a French bistro and ordered a plate of sweetbreads.

“Davy, do you know what sweetbreads are?”

“Sweet bread,” I deadpanned. “Something like a cinnamon roll, right?”

And my mother, not seeing tongue lumped in cheek, turned again to the waiter to rescue her youngest unschooled child from imminent and avoidable disaster.

* * *

My father was all about salt, which is to say, he ate Jewish.

Matjes herring was better then Bismarck, but both were preferable to herring in any kind of cream sauce. The very idea of cutting the salted, pickled-­without-pity taste with anything vaguely neutral or sweet was the mark of the apostate. To my father’s reckoning, a Jew caught dipping a piece of herring in cream might as well just slather mayo on fish sticks and crawl to the nearest baptismal font.

Pastrami, with the fattiest parts untrimmed, was lean corned beef perfected. The trick to great borscht? Salt that sucker down. The trick to great shav? Well, salt helps, but there is no such thing as great shav. A hot dog was a hot dog with brown mustard and boiled kraut. When my brother married a Wisconsin girl and brought her back to the family preserve, she punched a hole in the known universe by attempting to dress a Hebrew National dog with ketchup.

My father dryly threatened to notify the rabbinate and there was talk of a bet din, a religious court of inquiry. Spinoza, my father explained, had been excommunicated for less, merely because he greeted the Enlightenment by questioning the very idea of the Hebrews as Chosen.

“This is worse,” said Bernard Simon, intimating that absent an immediate repentance, a Biblical stoning might be regrettable but necessary.

In 1977, my father was downtown, working at the B’nai B’rith Headquarters in Washington. Armed members of a local Muslim sect, a breakaway from the Nation of Islam, seized the building along with other DC locations. As the day dragged on, a nearby Hilton hotel prepared sandwiches, which were brought in to feed the hostages. Sitting on the floor with nearly a hundred others, with a half-dozen armed men hovering, my father unwrapped the cellophane from a corned-beef sandwich to find that it was on white bread, and sullied even further by a schmear of glistening white mayonnaise. He turned to a coworker and said—and this is not mot d’escalier on my part, this is an actual quote:

“Sid, they’re trying to kill us.”

To my father’s tastes, cuisine was sodium and chloride and only one possible permutation of those elements. It was belly lox before nova. And if the Parkway deli down the block had lox wings—the fatty part of the salmon near the fin that somehow retained even more salt than the sliced stuff ever could—well, pick up a half dozen of those and we can nosh. No bagel. No cream cheese. No tomato. Why trifle with such blandishments? Just bear down on strips of heavily salted, fat-greased fish on a plate. Maybe some seltzer to wash it down.

This was my birthright, my inheritance.

In the summer months, my mother—having some sense of food groups in which brine did not feature—would often start a meal with fresh berries and cream. Not crème fraîche, mind you—that stuff was for Presbyterians. No, the berries were made to swim upstream in a fat dollop of Breakstone sour cream—my maternal grandfather asserting himself from beyond the grave. But in whatever total war was being waged against the sweeter side of my father’s tastebuds, even this concoction was too close to some sort of salt-neutral Switzerland.

As a countermove, my father invented his own appetizer. He went into the kitchen, pulled out a sharp knife and a jar of Ba-Tampte brand (“tasty” in Yiddish) half-sour kosher pickles. He chopped two pickles into small cubes, and then mixed them with sour cream: Jewish tzatziki. Except more bitter, and more better to his way of thinking.

(Before proceeding further with this tale, I have to pause to remark on the fact of my father entering a kitchen anywhere, grabbing a sharp implement and a food item, then rendering that item into a different form, mixing that element with a second substance, and serving it. It’s impossible for me to convey the singularity of this event, except to reference another childhood memory, one in which my mother went to New York to visit her mother and sisters for a week. I was subsequently taken to the Parkway Deli for seventeen successive meals.)

When I first sat at a dinner table and peered over my summer berries to see my father’s bowl of dissent, I could only respect the depths. I thought I had seen the besalted Hebrew cuisine in all possible forms. What, I asked my mother, is that called?

Pickles and cream.

As a ten-year-old in the suburban Washington of 1970, the phrase “what the fuck” was not entirely unknown to me. But somehow I managed to suppress my initial reaction.

“Dad, you’re gonna eat that?”

“It’s good. Try some.”

I picked up a spoon.

Cornichons et crème. À la Chef Bernard.

* * *

I found the wider world, or perhaps, the world found me.

And now, at fifty-one, I’ve been to Georgia on a fast train, as they say. Been to New York, Paris, London, Capetown, San Francisco, Napa, New Orleans. There have been meals, oh yes, there have been some meals.

The Bristol in Paris. Le Bernardin. The French Laundry. The River Café in Hammersmith. The Ivy in Soho. Momofuku. Gotham Grill. Tasting menus from Dufresne or Mina or Colicchio, omakases from New York sushi lords and Los Angeles sushi nazis and Nobus upon Nobus upon Nobus Next Door, wherever they are to be found.

And, too, I’ve had time enough to hunt down perfection without pretense, on back roads and back streets. A slice of Di Fara’s. A T-bone and tamales at Doe’s in Greenville. A burnt-end sandwich at Arthur Bryant’s. Pork ribs at Smitty’s in Lockhart, Texas. Fresh, soft tacos from La Super-Rica in Santa Barbara. Malva pudding at that joint on the road south of Capetown. Brisket from that no-name shack in Georgiana, Alabama. In New Orleans, I’ve tasted the chicken à la grande at Mosca’s four times in a single life. In Baltimore, I’ve stood at the Faidley’s bar with a crabcake platter at least twice a year for my entire adulthood. And thanks to this Bourdain fella, I’ve wandered a campground in Opelousas, Louisiana, and watched an entire living pig transformed into serving sizes, tasting all and loving all.

I don’t claim to know a damn thing about food—about why a dish works or why it doesn’t, about ingredients or seasonal menus or wine pairings. My credentials are akin to someone who likes to drive a beautiful car at high speeds but sees no point in opening the hood and looking inside. I know when something new explodes in my mouth and messes with my brain; I have no clue how it comes to be, and my incuriosity when it comes to the world of the kitchen is, at this point, just embarrassing.

But I do love a new taste, a new experience. I know what I don’t know and yet am content to put just about anything in my mouth on even a little bit of say-so. My father, as you can imagine, found this appalling.

First of all, some of the stuff I ate didn’t have enough salt. And some of it was from countries whose cuisine was unknown and uncertain in say, 1955, when the invention of food was largely complete and fixed. And, too, some of it was ridiculously expensive.

My father was a generous man, a liberal, charitable man. But he also knew what he knew, and he knew the value of a dollar. Walking my father into Le Bernardin or Nobu would have produced apoplexy. Money was only money to my father; he would not begrudge anyone their pleasures, their luxuries, their extra expenses. He hoarded hardback books, for example. Cheaper paperbacks brought him no pleasure at all. A book was worth whatever anyone asked for it. But food? How good, how unique could anything worth eating really be? For my father, a child of the Great Depression, high-end cuisine was all pomp and presentation, and, he feared, a great scam perpetrated on a public easily impressed and hungry for status.

I remember the first and last time Bernard Simon tasted sushi—a cuisine that should have appealed to a man who had embraced fish and salt as an essential combination for life.

“People pay for this?”

Or the time my LA agent took us out for brunch at Barney’s on Wilshire, where my father ordered lox and eggs, a deli staple. Alas, it came with crème fraîche and Osetra caviar and was priced accordingly.

“Your mother makes better.”

And the idea of journeying to find the perfect fried-oyster po’ boy or the perfect pizza slice? The miles-to-go-before-we-sleep hunt for the barbecue place that has no name, no phone? The whispered rumor of a food truck that’s killing it according to Chowhound?

To my father, the world had lost all sense.

In New Orleans with my parents, I once tried to drive out of the city, west to Houma, Louisiana and a little shack named A-Bear’s, a place said to be serving a fried-catfish sandwich that made even full-blooded Cajuns weep with gratitude.

“Dottie,” he grumbled to my mother, as we rolled down I-10 and the city skyline receded. “Don’t ever tell anyone we went to Houma, Louisiana to eat catfish for lunch.”

When I told him that catfish might actually be dinner, that we might first stop for lunch in Thibodeaux for boiled crawfish, he began to panic. He knew there was no hope of a delicatessen in such a wilderness. Reaching for his wallet, he pulled out a coupon for a run-of-the-mill Italian joint in downtown New Orleans, a place where, if he had to eat Italian, he could at least order his preferred dish: veal parmesan, without the cheese.

“You’ll get a good meal here,” he said, waving the coupon.

“Dad, did you ever eat there?”

“No, but I got a coupon. And Italian is Italian.”

He died two years ago. Toward the end, he was invalided and his world was limited to the meals my mother brought him at bedside. Tellingly, as he began to fail, he lost his taste for salt, for delicatessen, for all the heart-stopping glory of pastrami or lox wings or knockwurst and kraut. The bypass surgery years earlier certainly provoked some of the moderation, but something else was at play. In the end, he was eating less and less, and most of it very simple, very basic, very bland. He developed a sweet tooth, of all things. Ice cream became one of his few remaining favorites. Regardless, and to the very end, if my mother made it, it was better.

* * *

Two weeks ago, I found myself exhausted after a long day on a film set. My family was back home in Baltimore, and the house was empty. I’d been eating late meals all over New Orleans, and of course, as anyone familiar with Crescent-City cuisine is aware, a string of late New Orleans meals will kill a man dead.

Anything worth doing is worth overdoing down here, and the only way to survive the local fare, good as it is, is to retreat now and again to one’s own kitchen. A salad here, a broiled piece of chicken there, and maybe, just maybe, you come off a 120-day film shoot with a body weight that is moderately less than planetary. So I drove to Breaux Mart, the neighborhood grocery, just before it closed.

And there, in the deli section, I glimpsed a jar of kosher half-sours. Not Ba-Tampte, but close enough. In the dairy section, I found Breakstone sour cream. And late that night, alone in the City That Care Forgot, I sat down and ate something that my father, a man who knew what he knew, had invented.

The first spoonful threw me back to childhood, a Proustian moment of remembrance and joy and, yes, sudden grief. I sat there eating and crying, finally admitting to myself that, for all the great chefs and magnificent dishes and wondrous journeys toward a finer and newer meal, this was, for me, utterly perfect.

I had seconds.

* * *



My father holding my son, Ethan.  1995.

Mr. O’Malley’s Bad Math

18 May
May 18, 2015

In 2000, as Martin O’Malley took over as mayor of Baltimore and promised to bring crime under control, there was worry on the part of some in the city that the zero-policing, broken-windows strategies he hoped to import from New York might result in a culture of mass arrest and a dimunition of civil liberties.

A year later, after Police Commissioner Ed Norris had trimmed 43 murders to drop Baltimore under the 300-homicide-a-year mark for the first time in a decade, Mr. O’Malley could note  — and did note to the New York Times — that the achievement had come without any corresponding increase in the rate of arrest.

“It never happened,” the new mayor said, proudly.  “We turned the murder rate by doing a better job of arresting the hard-core criminals.”

And they had.  And though Mr. O’Malley at that time claimed an annual arrest total of 78,000 — it would eventually be recorded as 8,000 more than that — he was justified in contending that his administration had made a meaningful and substantial reduction in the murder rate and had done so without resorting to the mass arrests and overpolicing that his opponents had feared.

The quote was telling in that the new mayor clearly understood that while much was being claimed for the Guiliani-Bratton policing methods in New York, there could be a civic cost to indulging in an excess of street arrests in communities that had already come to look upon the Baltimore department with considerable distrust.  Mr. O’Malley was instead citing quality over quantity, and making that a hallmark of his new administration.

As a Baltimore resident and someone who had covered crime in the city, I was impressed.  Now, Mr. O’Malley said, looking ahead, the task was to reduce the murder rate below 200.  His political campaign had promised a ceiling of 175 city murders by 2002, and Commissioner Norris, a veteran detective and supervisor from the NYPD, had clearly re-established retroactive investigation as a departmental priority.  In Mr. O’Malley’s first year in office, the clearance rate of current-year murders improved from little more than a third of the total in 1999 to over half of the 2000 cases cleared.  Because of aggressive warrant service on old cases from previous years, which allowed the department to credit clearances without counting crimes, the less-meaningful public number was even fatter for outside consumption, even ridiculously so.  But still, the trend seemed promising.

The next year, the murder rate stayed constant, and the following year, the same, each offering only slight declines over the success of 2000.  The assault rate, too, stayed relatively constant for the first three years of Mr. O’Malley’s mayoralty, meaning that all measure of city violence seemed to at least be trending in the same direction.

True, the O’Malley administration had played one crisp game with the stats at the onset — giving a 13 percent bump to the crime stats for the last year of predecessor Kurt Schmoke’s administration and setting themselves to reap the benefit.  Arguing that an internal review of Mr. Schmoke’s last year of crime fighting had revealed a substantial number of felonies that were downgraded improperly, the O’Malley administration went to labored effort to restore those stats to the FBI’s uniformed crime totals, notably dumping thousands more aggravated assaults in the 1999 totals.  Henceforth, any thinning down of  those fatted numbers would be credited to Martin O’Malley.  The new mayor had given himself a double-digit jump on any Baltimore Miracle to come.

But again, the first year of the O’Malley anti-crime campaign was legit, and promising.  Murders had come down, the clearance rate had gone up, and all of this had been achieved without some draconian policy of mass arrest afflicting Baltimore’s poor, as many had feared.  The assault stats, too, seemed plausible for those first three years, and certainly, the drop in the murder rate was honest; no police commander anywhere has figured out how to hide the bodies.

But in 2003, something happened. Something ugly. Confronted by a murder rate that was no longer falling with as much gusto after the initial success of three years earlier, Mr. O’Malley’s staff began to badger Mr. Norris for more dramatic improvement and to do so in ways that made Mr. Norris angry and uncomfortable. Heralded for his initial success in the city, Mr. Norris could not guarantee crime reductions of a kind promised publicly by the mayor, regardless of what hectoring came from Mr. O’Malley and his aides. Nor did those aides seem remotely aware of what could and could not be done to legitimately suppress crime with given resources.

And something else happened in 2003:  Mr. O’Malley tossed the Fourth Amendment out a window and began using the police department to sweep the corners and rowhouse stoops and, in a lament that Mr. Norris offered me years later,  “lock up damn near everyone.”  Total arrests soared to 114,000 in a city of little more than 600,000, an increase of more than 30 percent over the restraint in which the mayor had taken pride after his first year.  Instead, Baltimore was on its way to being successfully sued by rights groups for a mass and willful violation of its citizens’ civil liberties.

Eventually, a disgusted Mr. Norris quit, taking a job as State Police Superintendent.  A new chief, Kevin Clark — also an NYPD veteran and also trained in the techniques that had won acclaim in that city — took the helm.  And even more than with Norris, mayoral aides began to interpose between the chief and his subordinates; Comstat meetings turned aggressive in demanding better numbers, and soon, those better numbers — much better numbers — began to appear in public.

But not for murder.

In 2003, Mr. O’Malley came no closer to his promised goal of dropping Baltimore slayings to 175.  In fact, the city suffered a setback with 17 more homicides recorded than the previous year. But incredibly, because the trend was in no way consistent with a rising murder rate, the city’s assault rate nose-dived dramatically, falling by more than 25 percent.   Yes, in the fourth year of Martin O’Malley’s mayoralty, suddenly and inexplicably, the victim of an assault in Baltimore, Maryland was more than 25 percent more likely to die from that assault.  Moreover, while the murder rate would continue to climb modestly for the remainder of O’Malley’s years at City Hall, the numbers of recorded assault would never again approach those of prior years, eventually reaching a dramatic low during the last year of Mr. O’Malley’s tenure, finishing a full 30 percent below the assault rate recorded even in 2000, when he achieved his most substantial improvement in the murder rate.  In that same period, the murder rate, did not fall by 30 percent.  It rose by 6 percent.

Statistically, if you understand the dynamic, this is no mere Baltimore Miracle.  This is water into wine.

There were three possible explanations:

1) Baltimore assaults had become 25 percent more lethal between 2002 and 2003 and stayed that way, with the city’s criminals becoming more dangerous shots with better weapons, more savage with straight blades, or more furious with lead pipes.  Alas, no medical examiners seemed to notice any overt trend in the severity of the wound patterns.

2) The medical community in the city, largely represented by its trauma units, were now losing 25 percent more bleeders than before.  In 2003, suddenly, John Hopkins and the UM trauma units were going backwards to the dark ages in terms of emergency care.  But no, they were saving as many of the wounded that came through the E.R. doors.


3)  Unable to make the murders disappear as promised, and with the fledgling effort to reduce that benchmark stalled and now, in 2003, actually going the wrong way, the O’Malley administration made many of the assaults disappear.  Robberies, too.  Rapes as well.  They began juking stats.

If it was so, did anyone say anything?

Well, Commissioner Clark for one, seemed to take some real notice.  In fact, looking back at the 2002 stats — a year before the dramatic decline in assaults began, he noticed an equally stark decline in two other felony categories: robberies and rapes.   Robberies in 2002 dove by nearly 20 percent and rapes in Baltimore fell by more than 50 percent in a single year, yet Clark noted that the overall 911 calls were running five percent higher.  It all seemed improbable.

Clark, who would run afoul of City Hall and be fired the following year after being cleared in a domestic violence dispute, later told the redoubtable Jayne Miller of WBAL-TV’s investigative team that he ordered some sample audits of robberies and rapes, paying particular attention to the large number of unfounded reports.  Those audits, which Miller actually obtained for WBAL three years later as Mr. O’Malley was undertaking his gubernatorial run while claiming extraordinary crime reductions in Baltimore, revealed that of 738 “unfounded” robbery reports, 109 — or 15 percent — were reclassified after auditors found they were actually, well, robberies.  The figures for rape were worse — 20 percent of the 331 “unfounded” rapes were actual sexual assaults that had simply been dumped, according to the audit provided to the reporter.

Worse from a systemic standpoint, Commissioner Clark told Miller, was the auditor’s discovery that anyone with access could go into the police department’s records and simply change the coding on documents, discounting them from crimes to unfounded reports, and leave no trace of the act.

The police commissioner called City Hall with the results of the audit.  It did not go well.  He would later tell Ms. Miller: “I was brought into a meeting. I sat therewith Matt Gallagher (director of operations for CitiStat), Deputy Mayor Michael Enright, and they were very annoyed, they were very unhappy with what had happened.”

Miller:  “When you presented this to the administration, to City Hall, you were instructed not to go any further?”

“Yes,” Clark responded.  “Deputy Mayor Enright clearly said they weren’t going to go any further because the mayor had already been out front and had told everyone nationally that Baltimore was leading the nation in the reduction of violent crime, and I think, at that time, it was something like 26 percent, and if suddenly we were to have an audit that showed the numbers were going to take some type of change, it would kind of leave him out to political scrutiny,” Clark said.

Confronted by the news report and Mr. Clark’s account, the O’Malley camp replied to this revelation simply by characterizing Mr. Clark as a disgruntled former employee.  They insisted that no meetings over any audit had occurred, though Mr. Enright, as deputy mayor, would not consent to any interview, according to Ms. Miller.

And yet Mr. Clark is at least partially corroborated by the fact that some of his audit leaked to the Baltimore Sun contemporaneously and was investigated and affirmed by reporter Justin Fenton. The dramatic unfounding of so many city rapes — police were only crediting 171 sexual assaults in 2002, while Mr. Clark’s audit was looking at 331 reports that had been marked as false — made for strong copy.  The Sun broke the story of the suppressed rape stats, but went no further to look at robberies.  Nor did they look into the dramatic declines in assaults the following year.

Commissioner Clark was gone by 2004, replaced by Leonard Hamm, a homegrown candidate for the post who displayed absolutely no wariness about any possible effort by his department to suppress crime stats.  Actually, it’s way worse than that; Commissioner Hamm surprised everyone by advocating for the suppression of crime reporting.  Publicly.

As the unrelenting Ms. Miller began digging up specific incidents of Baltimoreans who attempted to report crime and who, for their trouble, were blistered with hostile questions by police supervisors or otherwise denied the chance to file a report of a crime, Commissioner Hamm displayed astonishing nonchalance that reached its apogee when Ms. Miller produced shootings of people that were never actually written up as crimes. To be clear: These were Baltimoreans who were struck by bullets but were never reported as aggravated assaults or assault by shootings. No report, no crime.

In one Cherry Hill incident, investigating officers refused to investigate or report the shooting, saying they weren’t receiving sufficient cooperation from the two wounded victims.  To which the Baltimore Police Commissioner said — and, honestly, for all the Kafkaesque television drama with which I have been involved, I cannot possibly make this up — that the incident was handled appropriately and was not an isolated error.

Ms. Miller: “So, let me clear about this, if your officers get there and the victims don’t want to cooperate, the officers have the right to simply say this is unfounded?” Miller asked the commissioner.

“In some cases, yes,” Mr. Hamm responded.

This same Commissioner Hamm led the Baltimore department for the remainder of Mr. O’Malley’s tenure in Baltimore.

So then, to sum up, given Mr. Hamm’s predisposition to not taking shooting reports, and given his predecessor’s open acknowledgment that he was ordered to stand-down from any full-scale audit of  suppressed crime stats even after such irregularities were already discovered, as well as the confirmation of the suppressed rape cases by The Sun, and given as well Mr. O’Malley’s insistence on retroactively loading up his predecessor’s stats so as to advantage his own percentages, is there anyone still actually willing to believe that Martin O’Malley somehow made violent assaults go down by 30 percent in the same city where murders increased by six percent?  Or that crime went down 40 percent overall?  I mean normal, sensate people.  Not, say, the guys at the Washington Post, or the Wall Street Journal, or Politico — all the folks for whom politics is a game of personalities and quotes that is in no way connected to anyone ever looking into, or solving, or failing to solve an actual fucking problem.  Those fellows will keep repeating this horseshit about a Baltimore Miracle until Mr. O’Malley goes up to 50 percent.  Then, I suppose, they’ll repeat that.

*        *        *

The standard replies from the O’Malley camp to all of this stacked and odorous improbability is two-fold:

1)  Simon is a sonofabitch and this is personal — just as they say it was personal for former Commissioner Clark when he alleged coming to them with suppressed stats, and presumably personal to Jayne Miller when she kept reporting on this dynamic and got Mr. Clark’s successor to openly acknowledge such suppression, and just as it was presumably personal to Justin Fenton of The Sun when he reported on all of the dumped rape complaints that Mr. Clark’s initial audit generated.  The enemies list here is wide and varied, but I will stipulate to the former accusation and be a sonofabitch on the right occasions.  As to the latter claim, what’s personal to me here is actually more important than Mr. O’Malley or his political future.

But first let’s deal with the second defense that Mr. O’Malley offers:

2) It’s never been proven.  In fact, we were audited.  We had our numbers checked.  Leave us alone with your accumulation of doubt and implausibility because the fact is, you can’t prove that we suppressed the stats, and we say we didn’t: “The charges we encounter every election season are akin to ‘Have you stopped beating your wife?’ ” Mr. O’Malley told the Washington Post five years ago. “No one’s ever come forward with reams of crime reports that were dropped in a dumpster or anything like that.”

It’s an interesting quote from Mr. O’Malley, a precise verbalization of what one might think is required to definitively prove that the claims of a Baltimore Miracle are rigged.   Where is the dumpster with the discarded reports?  Show and prove, or let the 40-percent reduction stand.

But of course, people have come forward including, notably, two of the three men who led Mr. O’Malley’s police department for most of his mayoralty.  One says he brought Mr. O’Malley’s closest aides actual evidence of cooked stats and was turned away, and the other says publicly he saw no problem whatsoever with suppressing crime reports.

Further, Mr. O’Malley’s repeated claims of any independent audit by anyone burnishing the credibility of his stats in some way are just, well, silly.  The FBI accepts the UCR data provided by state and local police agencies without intervention or scrutiny; no one goes back through the common assaults to see how many aggravated assaults were downgrounded or why, just as no one looks up the unfounded reports to determine by so many shootings or rapes or robberies were dumped as fraudulent report.  Supporters of Mr. O’Malley have cited as many as 11 “internal audits” of his Baltimore Miracle as confirming the accuracy of underlying statistics.  But of course, those internal audits would have to have been conducted under the authority of either Mr. Clark, who is openly saying the opposite, that he was thwarted in his effort to fully audit numbers that he found dubious, or even more absurdly, Mr. Hamm, who openly acknowledged that he was actually advocating for and engaging in the suppression of honest-to-god felonies.

Asked by Ms. Miller about an independent audit in 2006, amid the gubernatorial campaign, Mr. O’Malley was unequivocal:  “No, I’m not asking for an independent audit.”

Bottom line is that right now, we have the numbers that we have, and anyone looking at them can do the math using the data that Mr. O’Malley and his police department have generated.  That’s all that can be assessed.  But if it’s garbage in, then it’s garbage out.  And, yes, I’m saying from the moment you know that the O’Malley administration piled 3,000 more aggravated assaults onto his predecessor’s totals, then had his own assault numbers nosedive 30 percent in the same years that murders rise, it’s garbage in.

As to the first line of defense by the O’Malley camp, let me go back to something I said earlier, in the interview with the Marshall Project:  The hard-on here is not for Martin O’Malley.  Not at all.  My politics are generally to the left of the Democratic Party, so unless the Republicans figure out how to bring back LaFollette or the libertarians figure out a way to embrace a better political platform than selfishness, I’m going to be voting for the Democratic nominee.  If it’s Martin O’Malley, he likely has my vote.  And while I found his peformance in Baltimore as an anti-crime crusader to be wholly lacking, destructive and disingenuous, I think his general fiscal management of the state, his support for gay rights and his abhorrence of the death penalty are all commendable. Win some, lose some, and we all need to admit that even in the best of times, voting in this republic always owes a little something to Mr. Hobbes.

If I have a strategic political fear, it’s this:  Our modern media culture over the last fifteen years may have been too fraile and eviscerated for newspapermen or broadcasters to unspool the time and manpower to do the independent audit that Mr. O’Malley’s astonishing claims of crime reduction deserved.  It was hard enough for The Sun, down so many bodies, to break the rape-report scandal, or for Jayne Miller, working at a local TV affiliate, to get Mr. Clark to offer up his audit results, or Mr. Hamm’s sledgehammer admission.  And sadly, maybe the whole thing just doesn’t justify more resources for an honest discussion about Baltimore policing strategy, or to settle a tit-for-tat debate in a Maryland election cycle. On the other hand, if Mr. O’Malley were to actually become a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, then I have to worry, from my perch on the left, about the Koch Brothers or some other deep-pocketed players paying all the investigators anyone would ever need to run FOIA requests on three years of Baltimore police reports, pulling all the unfoundeds, and simply talking to all the surviving complainants, or further still, pulling all of the larcenies and common assaults and finding all of the unjustified downgrades.  That’s the dumpster dive right there — the one that Mr. O’Malley mentions, and perhaps assumes no one would go back and dig through because, well, no reporter ever really did.  But the stakes are so much higher when it comes to the American presidency, and opposition-research at the national level pays so much better than journalism.   Even so, let me say that the tactical fears of a left-leaning Democratic voter aren’t enough to make me pick this fight.

No, I’m writing this mess because I covered crime and the drug war and wrote up what I learned in newsprint and books and television drama for 25 years.  It’s what I spent my adult life doing, and overall, I watched while zero tolerance and mass incarceration and broken windows became the predominant political slogan — not merely in recapitalized, rebuilt financial capitals like New York, where mass affluence itself did more to change the landscape than mass arrest, but in second-tier industrial cities that could ill-afford to brutalize a much greater share of its poorer populace.  And for the first time since I began reporting on this stuff, the worst of those philosophies is now, finally, on the defensive.

It’s true that Mr. O’Malley didn’t invent the drug war, or the overpolicing that preceded him in different forms — which I specifically spoke to in my original remarks to the Marshall Project — and it’s also fair to note that a lot of people, left and right, and not just Mr. O’Malley, bought the Guliani-Bratton line and exported it nationwide.  But it’s also true that the Martin O’Malley who finished that first promising year as mayor with a meaningful decline in the murder rate, an improvement in the homicide clearance rate and an unwillingness to resort to mass arrests and street sweeps — that fellow disappeared when the going got tough.  Two years later, when Baltimore’s murder rate proved too stubborn, what took over at City Hall was a faithless disregard for police work itself, and a real impatience with the slow but necessary process of improving and reforming a troubled department.  Instead, the wagons rolled and the jail was filled, and a lot of marginal, and even many innocent people in the most vulnerable communities in Baltimore were targeted.

Regrettably, with political worlds still left to conquer, Mr. O’Malley is still out there, nationally, defending a zero-tolerance policy that didn’t help make the city much safer, but taught the Baltimore department things it never should have learned.  And those lessons — like the ones taught by his unconstitutional street sweeps — will be with us here in Baltimore a long time.

In January 2007,  a decorated Baltimore officer named Troy Chesley was shot to death while off-duty in a botched robbery by a suspect who had, four days earlier carjacked a green van in the same neighborhood.  We know this only because the victim of that earlier carjacking called police after the officer’s murder and said he had tried to report the earlier crime but been summarily dismissed by the responding officers.  His claims of having been a victim of a major felony were not reported, and of course, Officer Chesley, went into his fatal encounter having never seen an incident report or a lookout on the stolen van.  Less than two weeks later, Mr. O’Malley was inaugurated as Maryland’s governor.

And he’s still with us, still climbing political hills, and still insisting by dint of juked stats that it was worth it, that zero-tolerance wasn’t the awful bargain that it actually was in Baltimore.  He’s arguing that he had to break some eggs to make an big, glorious, 40-percentage-point omelet, and it’s that argument — and not Mr. O’Malley — that matters here. Zero tolerance and the drug war and this American gulag we’ve built need to end before they coarsen and brutalize the American spirit further.  So, hey, I’m sorry, Marty, but there’s no goddamn omelet.


Not wrong. Not at all.

15 May
May 15, 2015

From an essayist on Bloomberg today comes the claim that because raw numbers of arrests have fallen since Martin O’Malley zero-toleranced his way to the governor’s chair, or because O’Malley, after ballooning the number of minor arrests, brought them down again at the end of his tenure, zero-tolerance and over policing can’t therefore be a fundamental cause of the declining standards of police work in Baltimore, the unprofessionalism of officers, and the lower regard for civil liberties by Baltimore police.

“David Simon, creator of “The Wire,” gave an interview recently laying blame for Baltimore’s recent upheaval at the feet of Martin O’Malley, the city’s former mayor and now a Democratic presidential hopeful. Simon charged O’Malley with initiating a policy of indiscriminate “mass arrests” for nonexistent low-level offenses, where officers learned to “roam the city, jack everyone up, and call for the wagon.” This breakdown in good police work and erosion of rights, according to Simon, contributed to Freddie Gray’s death and fueled the anger that boiled over into riots.

Simon worked for years as a Baltimore Sun police beat reporter, so his allegations carry an air of streetwise authority. “If you think I’m exaggerating,” he said, “look it up.” So I did. According to FBI data, Simon is not only taking some dramatic license; he’s leaving out important parts of the story.

Arrests did indeed increase under O’Malley, which isn’t surprising: He ran for mayor in 1999 promising a get-tough approach to crime in one of America’s most dangerous cities. After he was elected, crime fell, and total arrests went up — from 89,000 in 1998 to a peak of 114,000 in 2003. Whether a 28 percent increase warrants Simon’s colorful characterization is debatable, but let’s grant him the point: many more arrests were made.

But Simon didn’t mention something else: By the time O’Malley left office in 2007, arrests had returned to their 1998 levels.”

Um, Simon didn’t mention that because……it isn’t true.

Martin O’Malley wasn’t the mayor of Baltimore in 2007.  He defeated Robert Ehrlich in November 2006 and he was in Annapolis for all of the ensuing year. It was his successor, Sheila Dixon, who began the process of backing the police department away from the overpolicing and zero tolerance ordered up and defended by her predecessor.  Mr. O’Malley’s last year to directly influence Baltimore’s crime problem was 2006, when arrest numbers were still in the mid 90,000s for a city of 600,000.  And of course, his claimed arrest numbers are, for every year of his administration, underinflated apples to every other mayor’s oranges.  Why?  Well, read my original remarks: Only the O’Malley administration saw fit to implement a dynamic in which dozens of illegally detained arrestees were transported to BCDC every night only to be presented with liability forms by morning that would “unfound” their arrest paperwork if they promised not to sue the city.  Failure to sign meant you took a charge and waited a day or two to see a court commissioner.   Those unfortunate people — perhaps as much as 20 percent of the total number of arrests if ACLU-monitored samples are credible — are not in the data on which Bloomberg so devotedly relies.

Mr. Barry further notes that under the present Baltimore administration arrest rates are at an ebb, and he implies, falsely, that I was suggesting otherwise at any point in my prior remarks.  In fact, for four years now, I’ve been crediting the de-emphasis of zero tolerance by the present administration — and a re-emphasis on gun crime by former Police Commissioner Bealefeld — for a decline in the homicide rate that is openly acknowledged here in Baltimore.  That the arrest rate has been de-emphasized since 2010 in Baltimore is common knowledge to the point that Mr. O’Malley himself publicly complained about it to city officials here in late 2013 — to little avail as no one in power in Baltimore wished to return to his zero-tolerance policies.  Ergo, Bloomberg has, in the manner of half-assed commentary the world over, discovered something that no one ever actually lost.

No one is disputing that arrests have been declining in Baltimore, or claiming that the damage done by Mr. O’Malley’s belief in zero tolerance continues to produce mass arrests here well after his mayoralty.  Other results from his disastrous policies, more qualitative than quantitative, are nonetheless still in play.  That was the guts of my interview.  That is untouched by Mr. Barry’s commentary.

Actually, Mr. Barry, here is what I am alleging:

1)  That the decline in arrests toward the end of Mr. O’Malley’s tenure was not the result of some benign and discerning reconsideration of policy within Mr. O’Malley’s administration, or some nuanced reapplication of the Fourth Amendment by officers who had been rewarded for earlier discarding civil liberties.  No, it was the result of an ongoing law suit by the ACLU and NAACP on behalf of the thousands of innocent people dragged to the city jail without probable cause and in many cases without having their arrests actually recorded as criminal charges.  Indeed, ACLU estimates, based on sampling data, indicated that as much as 35 percent of arrestees processed by the O’Malley administration did not have any articulated probable cause in their charging documents.

Had that lawsuit not gone forward, and had not complaints been mounting from city residents  — and indeed civil rights leaders here pleaded with Mr. O’Malley personally to end the street sweeps to little avail before filing suit —  the O’Malley administration was willing to embrace mass arrests until the cows came home.  Furthermore, Mr. Barry, many of those bodies that washed up on Eager Street without probable cause are uncounted in the stats that you cite.  That’s right: Many innocent Baltimoreans, upon being evaluated at the City Jail by police supervisors, were encouraged to sign liability waivers in order to go home within a few hours rather than being falsely charged on petty humbles and waiting in jail overnight or longer to see a court commissioner.  Get it?  These people aren’t even counted in the nearly 30 percent bump in raw arrests that you attempt to portray as somehow insignificant.  But thanks, Mr. Barry, for playing the game with corrupted data.

2)  That by utilizing zero-tolerance and massive street sweeps for a significant portion of his time in office, Mr. O’Malley damaged both the policing culture of the BPD and the relationship between the BPD and the inner-city communities in which probable cause became a marginalized concept.  A generation of sergeants and lieutenants was promoted and rewarded for the quantity, not the quality of arrest.  Investigative prowess in the Baltimore department — which had been declining in Balimore since the 1990s — continued that trend unabated under Mr. O’Malley as actual crime prevention and retroactive investigation took a back seat to mass arrests and street sweeps.  For example, clearance rates for murder in Baltimore that averaged 76 percent in the 1980s, were down in the mid-60s by the following decade, and from 2000-2009, a period comprised largely of Mr. O’Malley’s mayoralty, the arrest rate for murder averaged 59 percent.  It is now below 50 percent, significantly below a national average of 64 percent.

3)  That because mass arrests and street sweeps were favored over more substantive police work, fewer Baltimore officers were given any incentive to learn the hard job of policing, these felony arrest rates in Baltimore — not overall arrests for bullshit, but arrests for major crimes — suffered during Mr. O’Malley’s administration and they remain even lower today because those who never learned the skill set for real retroactive investigation of crime and crime suppression are now teaching the next generation of BPD personnel how not to do the job.  Mr. O’Malley’s policy of emphasizing street sweeps over clinical crime solving broke many links in the chain of institutional knowledge within the department, and a generation of Baltimore cops failed to master the basics of probable cause, or careful retroactive investigation of crime, which was irrelevant to grabbing every body on a corner and tossing them all into wagons.  Yes, a subsequent administration could cease the mass arrest policy and attempt to emphasize other things, but of course they would be doing it with a police agency that under Mr. O’Malley had learned some ugly lessons, and would continue to apply those lessons at the street level. And while the number of arrests of city residents might be lowered as a matter of policy, the illegality, discourtesy and brutality of too many of those encounters — as evidenced by the litany of brutality cases for which Baltimore has paid settlements, documented by the Baltimore Sun last year — would still bear the influence of a seven-year period in which basic police procedure operated outside the rule of law.

4)  Once Martin O’Malley left City Hall for the political horizons of Annapolis, yes, some fundamental restoration of balance between real police work and zero-tolerance was attempted and even achieved.  But credit where it is due:  A new mayor and new police commissioner made real gains by going the exact opposite way of Mr. O’Malley in their policing strategies.  And despite Mr. Barry’s implication to the contrary, nothing I said in my original remarks suggests that I do not personally credit the new priorities, or that I am not aware that zero-tolerance was halted after Mr. O’Malley’s mayoralty.  I’ve been doing so for years now:

It is my understanding that Commissioner Bealefeld – by finally choosing to emphasize the quality, rather than the quantity of arrest – has been able to reduce the homicide rate somewhat in our city. If true, this is not only commendable, it is a long time coming. Too long, in fact.”

That was something I wrote in the Baltimore Sun in January 2011, years after Mr. O’Malley had departed for Annapolis and well into a prolonged effort by the Rawlings-Blake administration — and even earlier, by the abbreviated Dixon administration — to do a complete about-face from Mr. O’Malley’s zero-tolerance policies.  That’s right: After Martin O’Malley and zero-tolerance failed to achieve more than modest reductions in violent crime – those who inherited Baltimore’s crime problem did exactly the opposite and deemphasized mass arrests, targeted gun crime, and in that same year of 2011, pushed the city below 200 murders a year for the first time in decades. (Sorry, but as a point of comparison, the O’Malley campaign claims of a 40 percent reduction in part-one felonies during its own tenure are simply juked; you can recategorize and unfound agg assaults and robberies ad nauseum, and Mr. O’Malley’s people did, but not even the most ambitious politician can hide the bodies of murder victims.  That’s why that stat is always the tell for old police reporters.)

Unequivocally, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Fred Bealefeld completely abandoned Mr. O’Malley’s policies and principles, lowered the arrest rate meaningfully, and in doing so actually achieved some of the real crime reduction that Mr. O’Malley claimed, falsely, on paper.  Even now, with violence in Baltimore cresting after the disorder here, the murder rate is still below that which Mr. O’Malley left the city on his departure for Annapolis.  And again, the murder rate is ever the true-tell when it comes to crime stats:  A body can’t be made to disappear.  So how does the murder rate stay consistent, or even rise slightly during much of Mr. O’Malley’s tenure while during the same years, attempted murders are magically, dramatically falling by as much as 30 percent?  Are the criminals all suddenly better shots?  Has trauma care at Johns Hopkins returned to the dark ages?  No, the O’Malley stats on overall crime reduction have been cheated to create a narrative amenable to political ambition.  Guns have disappeared from agg assault reports, rapes have been unfounded, robberies have been categorized as Part II larcenies.  But murder is always the tell; it can’t be cheated for political advancement.  (More detail on this to come; it’s worthy of another post entirely to carefully parse the stats, review the history of crime categorization in Baltimore, and Mr. O’Malley’s astonishing claims of success unseen in any other American city.)

Most embarrassing is Mr. O’Malley’s incredibly tone-deaf coda in late 2013, a moment that I am sure he would like to call back now in the wake of Mr. Gray’s death and the revelations over the past year about how unprofessional and reckless the BPD has become with regard to police violence and with routine violations of civil liberties:

With the real credit for reducing arrest rates and abandoning zero-tolerance policing going to the present mayor’s administration and a police commissioner. who turned away from Mr. O’Malley’s arguments completely in 2010-2011, Mr. O’Malley nonetheless journeyed back to Baltimore not even two years ago to chastize Mayor Rawlings-Blake for lowering the number of arrests and deemphasizing street sweeps and allegedly allowing crime to again rise as a result.

That 2013 suggestion by Mr. O’Malley that crime was up because Baltimore had walked away from his wholesale denigration of civil liberties, his willingness to tolerate 100,000 arrests (again, not counting the non-arrests that never saw a court commissioner) in a city of 600,000, and his wholesale emphasis of quantity over quality in police work — this remarkable argument landed here in Baltimore with an hollow, empty thud.  Even then, before The Sun‘s revelations last year of widespread unprofessionalism and brutality by officers and before the death of Mr. Gray, the governor’s plea to renew zero-tolerance methods was soundly criticized and ignored by the political leadership in Baltimore.  They — and not Mr. O’Malley — had actually dropped the murder rate by doing the exact opposite.

That Mr. Barry comes now, championing Mr. O’Malley because he managed, under force of a civil rights suit, to bring arrests down off of his own extreme highs to a level still significantly higher than the already excessive levels of overpolicing he inherited — this is disingenuous and, frankly, a little bit desperate. Again, Mr. Barry’s data not only ignores the thousands of “non-arrests” that went to jail unrecorded as stats, but even worse, it treats all arrests the same.  After all, is it not entirely reasonable to assume that the 89,000 arrests that took place before Mr. O’Malley lost all interest in the Fourth Amendment might have contained some higher percentage of arrests that were actually police work, that bore some remote connection to an actual crime?  Or that Mr. O’Malley’s much higher number of detainees — those both recorded as arrests, and those released before booking after liability waivers were obtained — contains a far lower percentage of actual criminals?

Mr. Barry’s two-dimensional use of the data here is indicative of how stats mean nothing once they leave the street. On a flat chart, oblivious to the real world, quantity is all.  Quality — what the police work is or isn’t, what was taught to police for eight years and what wasn’t, what was rewarded and what wasn’t — doesn’t factor in Mr. Barry’s assessment whatsoever. It certainly had no meaning to Mr. O’Malley.  He was headed elsewhere. But the Baltimore department that remained behind wasn’t going to easily unlearn the new and permeable limits to civil liberties in this city.

If you want to assess what a mayor and police commissioner can achieve when they actually abandon zero-tolerance and over-policing, look four years after O’Malley was gone from Baltimore.  Even operating with a damaged police agency in which the investigative prowess and the deterrent of felony arrest was signficiantly weakened because of Mr. O’Malley’s priorities, Ms. Rawlings-Blake and Mr. Bealefeld achieved actual results.  Not merely reductions on paper.

Zero tolerance doesn’t work.  It just doesn’t.