O'Malley's Vital Statistics
Thursday, December 29, 2005
Almost every morning since taking office, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley has received an updated spreadsheet that stays on the back of his black briefing book wherever else his day takes him.
Crisp columns track the murders on his watch each day and provide comparisons with a year ago, both in raw numbers and percentages. As of yesterday, the count stood at 267, down five from last year, or 2 percent.
"This is how I've lived my life every day for six years," said O'Malley (D), who declared his candidacy for mayor on a drug corner in 1999, pledging to fight Baltimore's persistent crime with aggressive policing and a more concerted focus.
How voters judge his efforts might well determine whether O'Malley is elected governor of Maryland next year.
For the sixth year in a row, the city's homicide count is lower than it was anytime during the decade before O'Malley took office, when it was consistently above 300. And reported incidents of violent crime -- including rape, robbery and aggravated assault -- dropped by more than 37 percent during O'Malley's first five years in office. That is a steeper decline than any other of America's largest 25 cities has recorded, a point he makes on the campaign trail.
Yet the same statistics show that Baltimore has remained the deadliest of those 25 cities, with more murders per capita last year than any other.
That has made crime both O'Malley's biggest accomplishment and largest political liability, in part because as a mayoral candidate he spoke -- brashly, some say -- of lowering the annual homicide count to 175. The last time it was that low was nearly 30 years ago, and the closest Baltimore has come since O'Malley took office is 253, in 2002.
In the fight against crime, O'Malley has turned to technology, deploying street surveillance cameras to keep tabs on some of the most violent neighborhoods and using computer analyses to target police resources. He has adopted New York City's strategy of "zero tolerance" policing and placed a greater emphasis on disrupting the city's pervasive heroin trade.
But the mayor's tenure has been marred by turnover in the police commissioner's office and sour relations with the top prosecutor, in addition to the stubbornly high murder rate that provides fodder for his political foes.
A number of longtime residents, tired of seeing neighborhoods succumb to drugs and violence, have praised his efforts, as have many in the business community who say the focus on reducing crime has helped usher in business and residential development.
Others say policing under O'Malley has gotten too tough, that in an effort to post lower crime numbers police are frisking -- and, in many cases, arresting -- citizens without adequate cause, undermining trust in the community. In some months, one-quarter of those arrested, often for offenses such as loitering, wind up not being charged by prosecutors.
"The police became so aggressive that they were arresting some of the good people as well as the bad," said Tyrone Powers, a Baltimore native and Anne Arundel Community College criminologist. It has improved under the current commissioner, he said, but "what we've gotten to is political policing instead of effective policing."