Drug War Journalism

Mr. O’Malley’s Bad Math

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.



  • (Revised reply)
    I’m very much enjoying our dialogue and your most recent response has me reconsidering the theory I posited at the beginning of this exchange. It is now evident that I was conflating the policy of mass arrest with the general presence of police in vulnerable neighborhoods. It’s a significant error in reasoning and I’m glad you were able to provide some clarity. Would it be correct for me to infer from your reply that Baltimore’s record setting body count in May was a direct result of some kind of mutiny on the part of the BPD? I’m not clear as to what I should conclude from your contention that the BPD was willing to step back from “even the pretense that they were willing to do their job in the wake of the arrests of the officers”.

    Why do you think they weren’t willing to do their jobs in the aftermath of Freddie Grey’s death? If their unwillingness to perform their duties didn’t stem from a fear of being the next poster child for police brutality, then what could explain this dereliction of duty? The only other explanation I can think of is that the riots planted seeds of self-doubt in the minds of officers. Maybe the officers weren’t constrained by the watchful eyes of the media and activists, but by insecurities over their own ability to perform police work in a fashion at odds with a policy of zero tolerance. Or was it a pure display of solidarity with their indicted brothers and sisters, nothing more than a middle finger to all those who dragged their names, their profession and their department through the mud?

    If I am to concede your point about the murder rate being attributable to willful inaction on the part of the BPD, can you account for the increased murder rates in cities like St. Louis and Milwaukee? Were those police departments also in a state of open rebellion? Finally, I am utterly persuaded by your arguments against the theory that a transition away from zero tolerance policing will invariably entail brief convulsions of bloodshed. I gather you are suggesting that if a police force is well-trained and has its priorities in order, the move away from zero tolerance policing will not be plagued by a soaring body count in the early stages of the transition. I now find this argument convincing and I withdraw any claims I may have made about the validity of the “Ferguson effect”

    • There was a work slowdown, definitively, in the wake of the indictments of the officers. It is evidenced in the fact that the arrest rates for the city — already significantly reduced from the dramatic highs of the O’Malley years — fell sharply and dramatically in the weeks after the indictment. The police stopped getting out of their radio cars. Yes.

      Coupled with the fact that there had already been a significant freefall in the clearance rate for violent crime — meaning that high-end police work is a skill set of which the BPD is less capable to begin with — the volatility of the city in the wake of the rioting produced something of an explosion. The BPD was not going to have a retroactive, investigative answer to any violent surge — they don’t actually know how to police such at this point — and the patrol cops staying in their carw certainly helped to provoke such a surge.

      • Are there any police departments in the country that exemplify the high-end police work required to combat violent crime. Do any municipalities come to mind which contain the same indicators of violent crime–high levels of poverty, drug abuse and property crime– yet have a disproportionately low body count? Your reasoning for why the clearance rate has plummeted is unassailable. I don’t think anyone could dispute the fact that the BPD was ill-equipped to contain the resultant “explosion’, but you also seem to be implying that the BPD’s inaction may have contributed to this “explosion”. Doesn’t that bring us full circle? If patrols cops are intentionally staying in their cars, isn’t that symptomatic of the “Ferguson effect”? Perhaps the New York Times too narrowly defined the phenomenon. The “Ferguson effect” may encompass more than just police acting apprehensively in the face of increased scrutiny, it may include any kind of department-wide response to the unrest.

        As far as I’m concerned, the BPD’s retroactive, investigative response to a violent surge seems immaterial to the specific topic at hand. II could be mistaken but I’m under the impression that the “Ferguson effect” has no relation to why murders go unsolved, but why bodies end up dead in the first place. Your reply suggests that BDP may bear some responsibility for the surge itself, not just the disastrous response to the surge. If this is the case, a few questions remain unanswered. Why are the cops staying in their cars? Why is a murder more likely to happen if the patrol cops remain in their car (That answer to that may be self-evident, but I’m curious as to what your explanation may be)? And why are we seeing a similar spike in other cities? Are officers in the Milwaukee Police Department and the St Louis police department also staying in their patrol cars?

  • I’m very much enjoying our dialogue and your most recent response has me reconsidering the theory I posited at the beginning of this exchange. It is now evident that I was conflating the policy of mass arrest with the general presence of police in vulnerable neighborhoods. It’s a significant error in reasoning and I’m glad you were able to provide some clarity. Would it be correct for me to infer from your reply that Baltimore’s record setting body count in May was a direct result of some kind of mutiny on the part of the BPD? I’m not clear as to what I should conclude from your contention that the BPD was willing to step back from “even the pretense that they were willing to do their job in the wake of the arrests of the officers”.

    Why do you think they weren’t willing to do their jobs in the aftermath of Freddie Grey’s death? If their unwillingness to perform their duties didn’t stem from a fear of being the next poster child for police brutality, then what could explain this dereliction of duty? The only other explanation I can think of is that the riots planted seeds of self-doubt in the minds of officers. Maybe the officers weren’t constrained by the watchful eyes of the media and activists, but by insecurities over their own ability to perform police work in a fashion at odds with a policy of zero tolerance. Or was it a pure display of solidarity with their indicted brothers and sisters, nothing more than a middle finger to all those who dragged their names, their profession and their department through the mud?

    If I am to concede your point about the murder rate being attributable to willful inaction on the part of the BPD, can you account for the increased murder rates in cities like St. Louis and Milwaukee? Were those police departments also in a state of open rebellion? Finally, I am utterly persuaded by your arguments against the theory that a transition away from zero tolerance policing will invariably entail brief convulsions of bloodshed. I gather you are suggesting that if a police force is well-trained and has its priorities in order, the move away from zero tolerance policing will not be plagued by a soaring body count plaguing the early stages of the transition.

  • David,

    Would you lend any credence to this so-called “Ferguson effect”? The murder numbers are way up in Baltimore in 2015. If there’s an irrefutable causative link between increased police scrutiny and the spike in the murder rate, do we have to revisit zero tolerance policing? I would love nothing more than to see the end of broken windows policing, but is it possible we have just been confronted with a really uncomfortable reality? Perhaps we just need to weather this brief storm and the murder rate will eventually stabilize. I fully appreciate the long term benefits that will result from the discontinuation of zero tolerance policing, but are you concerned we may be sacrificing too many bodies along the way? Does this not seem a little utilitarian to you?


    • Nope. Baltimore ended zero tolerance after O’Malley left City Hall for Annapolis. Arrests were purposely brought way, way down by Shiela Dixon and Commissioner Bealefeld. And the murder rate fell to its lowest level in decades at the same time.

      The correlation isn’t there.

      • That’s fair. So do you think it was irresponsible for the New York Times to make such a suggestion? Also, when Dixon was sworn in as mayor in 2007, how likely would it have been for would-be murderers to be made aware of the inner workings of her policing strategy. Maybe that decline can just be attributed to the belief that zero tolerance was still in place. I imagine very few citizens in any city can articulate with any accuracy the crime control strategy of their current mayor, let alone note any differences in approach taken by that mayor’s predecessor. Clearly awareness over any changes in the city’s policing strategy would have been significantly higher after the riots in 2015 than the inauguration of Sheila Dixon in 2007.

        • They didn’t have to be made away. They had to be targeted.

          Bealefeld demphasized quality-of-life and zero policing and aimed his fewer, targeted arrests at violent offenders and gun cases. Murders dropped to 197 for a low unseen in decades.

          It isn’t a matter of “belief” or awareness. It’s a matter of competent, prioritized policing.

          • I completely agree with you on the net benefits of targeted, prioritized policing. I am not denying that targeted, prioritized policing was a major reason for the decline in the murder rate. But you and I may be making two mutually exclusive points. According to this Baltimore Sun Article, May 2015 was Baltimore’s deadliest month in 40 years. What could possibly account for that? Is it just a coincidence that the most lethal month in 40 years occurred immediately after the police department came under intense international scrutiny?


            For my part, I do not view that statistic as a reason to repudiate the discontinuation of zero tolerance policing. I hope police departments do not pump the brakes on any reform measures because of some alarming early trends. I’m just acknowledging a potentially messy reality. As I said in my previous post, if we want to get to where we want to go, we may have to weather a storm. We may be experiencing a brief window where prioritized, competent policing has yet to take effect and violent offenders remain emboldened by an apprehensive police force. As reforms begin to take shape, we will probably see a precipitous, long lasting decline in the murder rate. But how long will this window last? Do you even acknowledge the possibility that a temporary spike in the murder rate may just be an ugly part of the process? If that is the case, do we have the stomach for what may come?

            • Was it following intense scrutiny? Or a willful job action that kept police in their cars, unwilling to police at all? Coupled with a demonstrable loss of control and deterrent — not the loss of the policy of mass arrest, but the loss of all police presence in vulnerable neighborhoods? And all of it amid the sudden realization that the clearance rates for violent crime had over the last several years become fractions of their former value.

              You seem to think the police can’t do their job in Baltimore because people were watching them. I disagree fundamentally. They can’t do their job because they no longer know how, and further, they were willing to step back even from the pretense that they were willing to do their job in the wake of the arrests of the officers.

              • David,

                I find the text boxes become too narrow the longer this thread goes. I will reply to your most recent message with a new thread. I appreciate your responses

  • The sad thing is that all those numbers–even the ones that are missing–have names. Thanks for writing this. And for remembering that.

  • David:
    Incisive and thorough explanation revealing the statistical nO’Magic of nO’Malley. Given this and other fodder for Republican attack, I shake my head in disbelief at the apparent breadth of O’Narcissim,
    BTW- I always thought that kevin & Zeinab’s armed “ejection” had something to do with the files on Sean’s laptop. Glad you cleared that up. LOL
    My regards to you and Bill,

  • David: When I followed a link to this blog over a week ago I wasn’t at all surprised by it’s precise, compelling analysis. I’ve become fairly familiar with your work over the last few months. What did amaze me, coming back to read it again, was when I realized I could actually post here and that you read these comments.

    Not wanting to waste your extremely valuable time, I’ll skip how blown away I was binge watching The Wire for the first time last January. I will just say I consider it to be so far beyond what I previously considered to be the best drama series of all time-West Wing-that I’d bet within ten years it will be recognized as something akin to the Citizen Kane of series TV.

    Among the many astute points you made in this blog was that you would still vote for O’malley if he became the Democratic candidate. I feel the same, and I’m a little to the left of Che. He would be my third choice, especially as he still hates TW, IMO the truly great contribution of your show is realistically presenting how ‘the game’ takes precedence within the body politic as well as on the street. How those with good intentions can slowly be seduced by their own ambition and self interest.

    I suspect O’malley has much in common with your fictional mayor, and the kind of mindset created by juicing the stats applies to police and other government departments all over this country. It does not bode well for our future.

    Many thanks for providing this blog and giving an old man some hope that the dwindling number of ashkenazi’s might yet save us. I will always remember the interview with chemist/novelist Carl Djerassi when he confessed to being disappointed about the weak sales of his excellent books on chemistry. “Then suddenly it hit me! Come here, I’ll tell you a story.” I learned a great deal from those stories, as I have from yours David. I can’t thank you enough for your efforts.

  • Hello David, I know it’s offtopic but it’s the only way that I have to ask you this; for people who do not live in Baltimore, who do not live in USA; the education system (public, and in poor neighborhoods), after The Wire, It has improved? … I read that Baltimore is passing the worst period in the last 15 years in regards to the number of homicides, and something that I learned with The Wire is the influence and importance of the education on the culture of the street and the corner… the public education system is still that bad?

    And another question; you have read the book of Thomas Szasz “Our right to Drugs” (an amazing book which it has much in common with your works).


  • The events of the last two weeks, however, have changed my view of The Wire in a very fundamental way. I have spent most of my time listening to people in Baltimore speak about how this uprising came to be and why the anger runs so deep. I’ve been primarily speaking to black Baltimoreans in grassroots organizations who have, in a state of MSM invisibility, been building movements for years to fight poverty, end street violence, and challenge police brutality. This is humbling to admit, but this experience has made me reassess my favorite show, as if a very dim light bulb was being switched on above my head. I am now seeing what the The Wire was missing, despite its much lauded, painstaking verisimilitude: the voices of people organizing together for change. Everyone on The Wire seeks individual solutions for social problems: the lone cop, the lone criminal, the lone teacher, the lone newspaper reporter. Yes, it is certainly true that when entrenched bureaucracies battle individuals, individuals lose. But when bureaucracies battle social movements, the results can be quite different. (…)

    Yes, is offtopic, sorry.

    • A story that is about everything is about nothing. It is 60 hours saying what it does, and no more or less than that.

      However, let me ask one general question of your comment: If all of this grassroots organizing has been ongoing, if all of this battling against poverty has been evident, if all of the movements have been built over years, then why is the other Baltimore still the other Baltimore?

  • Managing statistics has become its own industry then, when taking all the points of the essay into account, and officers are getting paid to maintain good stats rather than to uphold and enforce the law.
    It staggers belief.

    What can be done though?
    This essay is damning for O’Malley’s administration but the legacy is still there.
    Is it all too irrevocably fucked?

    I think you should offer your essay out for publication to wider avenues, David.
    It deserves the attention of wider audiences, even if some media models and products are reluctant to print on grounds of political inertia.

    • Look on this blog for a couple/few posts about what happened to the homicide deterrent in Baltimore because of how clearance rates and conviction rates are tallied by the BPD and the State’s Attorney in Baltimore.

  • I’m just mad that apparently I was wrong thinking that O’Malley has given up on his presidential ambitions (oh I’m sorry, the bluest state in the country going to a Republican governor b/c nobody wants the taint of your association didn’t clue you in that now is not your time, Marty?) and is announcing in Baltimore in the wake of the fruits of his own destruction.


    Somebody gonna yell at him like Nicky Sobotka at that announcement, mark me.

    Meanwhile Sheila Dixon is getting standing ovations around here, dear Goddess, we are beyond through the looking glass.

  • David, thank you for this essay. There is a push for more data in policy making. But this case study emphasizes the importance of not only measuring the right things, but also monitoring the quality of data.

    I hope the folks at DOJ’s BJS, Harvard’s Data Smart City programs, and every one else studies this issue further.

    I also hope ProPublica, Frontline or someone else does some more digging.

  • “Juking the stats . . .”

    Somebody ought to make a critically-acclaimed, ground-breaking television series about the systemic, institutional failure of police departments, politicians, educators, and the media in their inability or refusal to address honestly the issues of manipulating the narratives of social health and community wellbeing.

    I bet it could be one hell of a show, if somewhat frustrating because of the limited ability of art to affect great social change that’s commensurate with the quality of the work itself.

    As for the stat juking itself . . . I’m afraid it’s all in the game yo, all in the game.
    I think Seymour Hersh said that.

  • Given your generally bleak assessment of our policing tactics over the last couple decades, I’d love to know what you make of the continuous and precipitous drop in national violent crime rates since ’93. I haven’t seen you address it anywhere, and maybe it isn’t relevant. But I find it fascinating and perpetually in the back of my mind as I read and agree with your (and others’) sentiments on the failure of our criminal justice system.

    Academics have pointed to everything from lead in paint and construction materials (which was barred in the early 70’s – roughly a generation before the start of the crime drop), to abortion legalization (a similarly correlative theory), to – sadly and inappropriately – zero-tolerance. It’s this last “possible cause” that upsets me and drives me to seek a universal impetus like lead or abortion, as I am saddened by the Guiliani-Bratton-O’Malley coalition who may use the drop as justifying fodder. Have you considered this issue at all? Do you think “cooking the books” as appears so rampant, may be a significant factor?

    Disclaimer: I’ve read a lot of your work (Homicide and The Corner included) and am as big a fan of the Wire as anyone. I know your journalism and work in general has focused more on the humanity of the systems we can control than the many possible pseudo-sociological causes of our society’s failures at large; but, as a student of Economics and Econometrics and Steven Levitt, I find them interesting. So, forgive me for distracting from the (perhaps more important) conversation at hand.

    • Interesting.

      You know, in Baltimore and at some point between my year inside the homicide unit (1988) and the present day, the city stopped counting justiable homicides (including police-involved shootings) and or homicide by auto (not accidental deaths, but use of a motor vehicle to kill someone, as in a suspect willfully running through pedestrians while fleeing police, say) in the stats they sent to the FBI for the murder rate.

      Now I actually think justifiable homicides should never have been in the murder rate to begin with. All homicides are not murders, though of course, all murders are homicides. The use of a motor vehicle as a weapon should certainly count and I remember one such case, which resulted in a manslaughter plea, that was clearly included in the murder count for ’88. But I also remember that the 237 murders reported as part of the UCR in ’88 also included justifiables.

      Point being is that somewhere between then and now, and certainly, I believe, for at least a decade, politicians and police commanders in Baltimore have been availing themselves of an apples-to-oranges comparison with prior-year data. If we were still counting the old way, I believe the murder totals for the last decade at least would be a dozen or two higher every year. Again, the current metric may be more accurate to measuring the crime of murder in some basic ways, but it’s statistically inconsistent with the past.

  • I commend your point about the national media focused entirely on personalities, with no real interest in the actual hard work and real consequences of governing. If Mr. O’Malley does become a serious candidate, I guarantee you that the recent issues in Baltimore will only be mentioned in the context of whether the African-American community will support his candidacy over that of Hillary Clinton in a primary, not the actual consequences of his polices, and what they may say about his ability to govern.

  • 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.

    Holy shit. Can they even still be called police then? Isn’t it law enforcement? If the law isn’t enforced, then….argh! It doesn’t make any sense!

    This absurd obsession with metrics is heinous. Regardless of how many people are actually murdered, raped or assaulted is obviously irrelevant. This number on this piece of paper is less than the number was last year ergo Baltimore Miracle. Obsession with those metrics leads to all of the abuses Simon notes above. It’s like trying to cheat in a rigged game. But actually take a look at the prison-industrial complex, the futility of the war on drugs, America’s deep-rooted racial issues? I’m pretty sure the only answer to that question is “Why do you hate America?”

  • Thanks for a Cliff’s Notes version of it all. Just one thing re: Justin Fenton et. al.’s coverage of the unfounded rapes–by focusing exclusively on the rapes, and all the other dynamics influencing that besides O’Malley’s political agenda, the Sun told a story that reverberated throughout the country and in no small part contributed to a wider journalistic effort to really examine how the justice system deals with sexual assault. I tip my hat to Fenton and his colleagues for saying what everyone in the Baltimore advocacy community knew for years but couldn’t safely call bullshit on in public.

    As you’ve pointed out before, it’s bigger than the police: a prosecutor wholly focused on his/her conviction rates won’t charge anything but slam-dunk rapes (of which there are very, very few), and that disincentives law enforcement from investigating those crimes. The unfounded rapes in Baltimore look a lot like they did in Philadelphia before some savvy reporting and a groundbreaking audit by advocates blew the top off that. And while the narrative is different in other cities, the fact of juked rape stats is virtually the same in so many places.

    WaPo has one good crime reporter, but he covers Montgomery County only. If they would fire George Will, Richard Cohen, and a few other ass-hat opinion-havers who can’t write, they could hire a decent crime reporter, or five, to cover the District. And they would find a similar atrocity with how rapes are handled. There was a Human Rights Watch report on this a few years back, but WaPo’s editorial board sided with MPD in quibbling over the fine details of particular statistical methods used by HRC and thus declared that the report was a total fraud. It’s downright creepy, how cozy WaPo is with the Metro PD.

    Point of this somewhat tangential response: WaPo sucks.

  • US uncut have posted that Maryland has just rejected $11 million for Baltimore schools on one hand and with the other, announced a $30 million new jail for young people. Is this also on O’Malley or is it a wider indictment of the state legislature.

      • I have not seen the article in question regarding the rejected school funding vs. the juvenile detention center, but as a former Baltimore City Schools teacher, I experienced first-hand the deep problems BCPSS is going through, and I have to say, they’re mostly preparing these kids for prison. I could go on all day about things that most people who haven’t been there, wouldn’t think happened in America in 2015.

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