O'Malley Finds Issue Can Cut Both Ways

Mayor Martin O'Malley -- with Del. Anthony G. Brown, his running mate in the race for governor -- defends city statistics that show a sharp drop in violent crime.
Mayor Martin O'Malley -- with Del. Anthony G. Brown, his running mate in the race for governor -- defends city statistics that show a sharp drop in violent crime. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 3, 2006

Eight years ago, Martin O'Malley was a crusading member of the Baltimore City Council, making headlines by accusing the city police commissioner of vastly overstating a decline in Baltimore's shootings. The numbers, O'Malley said, were "a massive hoax."

Today, as the city's mayor and a candidate for governor, O'Malley is proclaiming his "nation-leading progress" in reducing violent crime. And O'Malley's political foes -- Democrat and Republican alike -- are accusing him of having cooked the books. O'Malley, indignantly, is standing by his numbers.

The election year controversy is fueled by questions about an old crime audit that critics say has enabled O'Malley to inflate his claims and by television news accounts that have challenged more recent crime reporting. WBAL-TV's "I-team" this week featured a man who said he was carjacked at gunpoint and then threatened with arrest by Baltimore police.

"Is Mayor O'Malley perpetuating a massive hoax on the people of Baltimore today?" Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, O'Malley's rival in September's Democratic primary, asked during a radio interview Tuesday night. "His claim of a drastic reduction in crime is wrong."

Duncan, who trails O'Malley in the polls, now includes a riff about Baltimore's crime statistics in his stump speech. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) recently weighed in on the matter as well, telling reporters that "this issue goes to public trust. It goes to credibility."

Just yesterday, a bipartisan group of lawmakers announced legislation that would provide protections for law enforcement officials who are pressured to report false crime statistics.

O'Malley has defended the city's progress. His police commissioner, Leonard Hamm, has dismissed the TV reports as reckless and sensational. To date, no evidence has surfaced of a systemic manipulation of crime statistics.

Yet the controversy shows no sign of going away -- in part because there is no quick or definitive way for O'Malley to prove his numbers are right.

"The charges . . . are akin to, 'Have you stopped beating your wife?' " O'Malley said in an interview. "No one's ever come forward with reams of crime reports that were dropped in a dumpster or anything like that."

In a city where police deal with about 1.4 million 911 calls a year, even O'Malley boosters acknowledge that officers are likely to mishandle some cases. Given that reality, the media can trot out curious cases every week until Election Day without answering conclusively whether O'Malley fudged the numbers, said L. Douglas Ward, a retired Maryland State Police major and an administrator of Johns Hopkins University's public safety leadership program.

"The bottom line right now is there are a lot more questions than answers," Ward said. "It's a very complicated mess."

Some at City Hall argue that the best way for O'Malley to put the issue behind him is to embrace a new audit of violent crime statistics. O'Malley has said he would support a statewide review by a neutral party -- an exercise not likely to be completed by the election -- but he has come across as defensive at times.

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