Drug War

Not wrong. Not at all.

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.



  • O’Malley, according to a Dublin pub with a stained glass portrait of the Irish American gent (no doubt paid for by MOM), is a shitty musician

  • Thank you, Mr. Simon, for the context. This ought to be required reading for anyone working with “crime statistics,” or social science data of any kind.

  • One thing which doesn’t get mentioned much is how the drug war affects cops. I’m willing to bet it has caused a fracture line through the culture of the police department, especially for those cops (there must be some) who don’t believe in the drug war. What happens to them? I bet they burn out quickly, and find other work.

    • One thing that never gets mentioned by most is the fact that the fatherlessness that was in the African American communities years ago is now in Caucasian communities (28%? I forget…). I wonder if these Prezbylewski-type cops in the news lately had father figures in their homes… My cousin married a Caucasian male who wanted to be a police and they were separated within six months after he (she said) choked her out and left with the police after she called 911. He had no father (died in jail), his mother and stepfather left them here and moved to another city not long after the marriage.
      Thanks for the data.baltimoresun link below!

  • I went to the Francis Barry article to check out what David was responding to, and made the mistake of reading the comments–now I need a bath. They reminded me of an old Was Not Was song: The Woodwork Squeaks and Out Come the Freaks. How close to the surface lie all the old poisons we thought we had lanced.

  • I agree with you about the disastrous effects of zero tolerance policing, and I greatly appreciate all this data. Curious your take on the recent surge in shootings/homicides. This month alone, there have been 20 people killed in only 15 days, and that’s before learning if there were any fatalities from today’s four victim shooting. Even with the challenges in policing inherited from O’Malley’s tenure, hard to cite Rawlings-Blake’s tenure as successful (even moderately) in light of this.

    • The city state’s attorney’s office and homicide unit have some elemental issues in terms of the clearance and conviction rates. And certainly, some of those issues both pre-date and follow Mr. O’Malley’s tenure, though in his priorities he was no real friend to the art and craft of retroactive investigation. But the clearance rate in Baltimore has dipped from the low 70s in the late 1980s to below 50 percent now.

      If you don’t arrest people who kill other people, many of them remain on the street to compound the havoc.

      • According to the data i read in Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, violence in general is down.

        Chomsky says the whole book is wrong, but i think the guy is just intransigent on the issue of state power.

        Anyway, have you read the book?

        Also, while i agree en toto with your analysis of the drug war and policing, I noticed you said something about the Ferguson shooting that seemed kinda silly. You were summarizing the alledged crimes of the victims of police shootings and you described the man in Ferguson as merely shoplifting some cigars.

        I saw the video of him not only stealing cigars but assaulting the shop owner.

        Are you dubious of that video? Or do you just not think that kind of intimidation and violence is that big of a deal?

        While I agree that the police killings in Staten Island and Baltimore seem unjust, the Ferguson shooting seems more nuanced. Sometimes the black guy really is a criminal and violent and gets what he deserves when a cop dispatches his ass.

        I’m wondering what you saw in that killing that I didn’t see that makes it unjust.

        • If the video was even remotely correct, why is the victim Michael Brown dressed completely different in the video? I know you must be thinking Lt Devil, that not only do we look alike, even out clothes are identical as well? The store involved themselves say that it wasn’t even Michael Brown in the video…
          Peace, Mr. Simon, I got turned on to The Wire during the second season and have bought the whole series several times as gifts for relatives, friends, and coworkers, even after watching the rampant Youtube bootlegs. I will also buy Treme sometime soon

        • I saw Pinker speak this past year at the Nobel Peace Forum in Minneapolis.

          Pinker’s glib delivery of data in the face of distinguished delegates who know the real numbers was embarrassingly appalling to witness. More than one distinguished peacemaker got up and left the room.

          Complex problems require thoughtful dialogue; statisitics may be correct in total and offensive in the moment.

          I thought Pinker was a complete jerk.

  • Mr. Simon, the officers have a preliminary hearing together on May 27. Is there any (reasonable) chance that the judge will find there is not probable cause to support the charges?

    • I don’t know. The fact that there is a second-degree charge against the wagon man and it exists without intent is new to me. I understand, from reading about it, that there is apparently a level of indifference to injury that can allow for 2nd Degree murder in Maryland, but it seems problematic in some ways. I think that charge might be vulnerable to a dismissal prior to trial.

      The negligence and manslaughter charges seem more plausible. If you can be convicted of involuntary manslaughter for driving while intoxicated, without any intent to maim or kill but with reckless disregard, then it seems to me that you can fail to repeatedly fail to secure or tend to an obviously injured prisoner who is in your legal custody and also be so convicted.

      But this is me speaking without hearing evidence for either side as presented in court. I’m talking off the top of my head, largely based off of Ms. Mosby’s narrative at her press conference, which is not evidentiary.

  • Juked arrest stats for a climbing politician and resulting skills gap in many cops who never learned the basics of real police work…. Ironic that the Bloomberg News essayist failed to mention the millions of dollars paid to settle police brutality claims in Baltimore in recent years. When grandmothers and other innocents get abused by police for simply living in rough parts of town, no drop in the number of arrests (juked or real) can soften reality. There is a war on the poor, regardless of skin color. David, now that the national media has decamped, does it feel like the city is turning efforts to the quiet and steady work to restore hope in a better future?

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