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.
"I'm not saying that I disbelieve what the mayor is saying, but this is getting so much attention," said City Council member Kenneth N. Harris Sr. (D). "It would be in the mayor's best interest to bring closure to this, and it's only going to snowball if he doesn't move forward with an audit."
In 1998, when O'Malley was questioning the numbers, a university researcher confirmed that he was on to something. He found that nonfatal shootings had declined about 33 percent from 1993 to 1997-- well short of the 60 percent claimed by then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's police commissioner.
Shortly after the 1999 election, in which O'Malley made crime-fighting his number-one issue, the new mayor commissioned a broader audit of crime numbers from Schmoke's final year. As a result of the audit, Baltimore's violent crime count was adjusted upward for 1999, from 15,251 to 18,735.
The increase came primarily from reclassifying more than 3,000 incidents from common assaults to aggravated assaults. Under FBI guidelines, only the aggravated assaults are considered part of the violent crime count.
That audit provided the base line for O'Malley's contention that violent crime dropped about 37 percent from 1999 to 2004, a bigger drop than in any other of the nation's 25 largest cities.
Using Schmoke's numbers, violent crime would have dropped about 24 percent, putting Baltimore sixth in the nation.
Duncan has contended that the audit methodology was "very flawed" and served to "artificially inflate" Schmoke's numbers. The audit was limited to an examination of crime reports for the first six months of 1999 and used error rates in that data to revise totals for the second half of the year as well.
A memo to police officials from an FBI analyst offered qualified support for the audit's approach. Analyst James J. Nolan III said the methodology "could arguably be acceptable as a matter of expediency and practicality, IF you believe that the record-keeping system and practice in your agency have remained relatively stable during the two time frames."
Linder & Associates, headed by a consultant involved in the 1999 audit, later found that other cities, including Jackson, Miss., and Atlanta, had problems similar to those cited in Baltimore. The New York-based firm concluded that Jackson police had downgraded 64 percent of aggravated assaults, according to media reports. And an audit overseen by the firm revised the Atlanta figure upward by more than 84 percent.
So could the same thing be happening in Baltimore now? Criminologists say that if the numbers are being manipulated, one clue would be a rise in crimes classified as common assaults. But Baltimore police report that the drop in aggravated assaults since 1999 has been accompanied by an even steeper decline in common assaults.
Police officials also say the 1999 audit led to additional training for officers, increased scrutiny of crime reports and frequent review of classification decisions.
"If there is a mass conspiracy to downgrade or hide crime, there are a lot of us who would have to be on board with that," said Kristen Mahoney, chief of technical services for the department. "This is really a blanket indictment of real people who come to work every day to do their job."
Police concede that internal audits have exposed problems, including an undercounting of rapes in 2002, which raised the total from 178 to 211.
The 2002 audit was back in the news last week, when a former police commissioner, Kevin P. Clark, said in a WBAL-TV (Channel 11) interview that he ran into resistance from top O'Malley aides when pushing for additional audits that might show "substantial problems in the way that crime was counted in the city."
O'Malley spokesman Steve Kearney said Clark, who was fired in 2004 after being cleared of a domestic abuse allegation, had not voiced such concerns during his tenure or in a wrongful termination lawsuit against the city. Moreover, Kearney said, the police department had conducted 11 internal audits since 2003.
"These claims, and this story," Kearney said, "are simply false."