A Finger Pointed at Martin O’Malley

There’s a definite Day After feeling in and around Baltimore two days after Monday’s violence. But it’s hard to say anything’s returned to normal, particularly on an afternoon when the Orioles are playing a home game with no spectators allowed.

One voice that is very clear in the aftermath, though, belongs to David Simon, creator of the Baltimore-based award-winning HBO drama series The Wire. In a rather remarkable interview by Bill Keller for The Marshall Project, Simon casts a lot of the blame very squarely on former mayor and governor Martin O’Malley.

The drug war began it, certainly, but the stake through the heart of police procedure in Baltimore was Martin O’Malley. He destroyed police work in some real respects. Whatever was left of it when he took over the police department, if there were two bricks together that were the suggestion of an edifice that you could have called meaningful police work, he found a way to pull them apart.

I won’t quote the long segments of the interview where Simon makes his case for O’Malley’s culpability. But the basic idea is that in the pursuit of really impressive crime-fighting statistics (and O’Malley was and remains perhaps the country’s foremost advocate of data-driven police work), not to mention higher office, O’Malley radically pushed up arrest rates via mass arrests and “humblings” (minor status offense arrests) in high-crime areas even as the books were cooked to reduce the severity of reported crimes. The charge is sort of the equivalent of “teaching to the test;” I guess you could call it “arresting to the stats.”

So Martin O’Malley proclaims a Baltimore Miracle and moves to Annapolis. And tellingly, when his successor as mayor allows a new police commissioner to finally de-emphasize street sweeps and mass arrests and instead focus on gun crime, that’s when the murder rate really dives. That’s when violence really goes down. When a drug arrest or a street sweep is suddenly not the standard for police work, when violence itself is directly addressed, that’s when Baltimore makes some progress.

But nothing corrects the legacy of a police department in which the entire rank-and-file has been rewarded and affirmed for collecting bodies, for ignoring probable cause, for grabbing anyone they see for whatever reason. And so, fast forward to Sandtown and the Gilmor Homes, where Freddie Gray gives some Baltimore police the legal equivalent of looking at them a second or two too long. He runs, and so when he’s caught he takes an ass-kicking and then goes into the back of a wagon without so much as a nod to the Fourth Amendment.

It’s a pretty deadly charge, one that suggests O’Malley’s successors have been making progress but still cannot overcome the poisons he introduced into the system. We haven’t heard O’Malley’s side of the argument, and there’s a history of bad blood between the two men (though they reportedly made up last year during an encounter in the bar car of the Acela).

But there’s more at stake in this argument than David Simon’s or even Martin O’Malley’s reputation. The whole point of the kind of data-driven resource deployment–not just for police, but for virtually every other domestic government function–O’Malley’s made his signature (as you can read about in Haley Edwards’s profile of him at WaMo in 2013) is to promote transparency and to give everyone a common frame of reference for discussing what to do and not to do at the policy level. If, however, the inputs are artificial, much less “cooked,” the outputs are as well, and the whole exercise is a hoax. So it matters a great deal whether David Simon knows what he’s talking about, as inevitably, policymakers in other cities look at how to make “community policing” more than an empty slogan.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.