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.