The Democratic candidates for Maryland governor, clockwise from top left: Valerie Ervin, Ben Jealous, Alec Ross, Krishanti Vignarajah, Richard S. Madaleno Jr., James Shea and Rushern L. Baker III. (Staff photos)

With years of record-breaking homicide rates in Baltimore and a police department facing continued upheaval, the Democratic contenders for Maryland governor often talk about how they would tame crime in the state’s largest city when discussing public safety policy.

The focus on Baltimore makes sense practically and politically.

The city is struggling to stem bloodshed while trying to rebuild community trust after the Justice Department in 2016 declared that the police department engaged in unconstitutional tactics that targeted poor African Americans. And Baltimore is a Democratic stronghold, so direct overtures to residents could yield votes in the crowded primary contest, which features seven major candidates.

But the tough-on-crime talk that may have appealed strongly to voters in past political cycles has largely given way to different rhetoric. Candidates in the Democratic primary race have positioned themselves as reformers who will end mass incarceration, overhaul the bail system and make life easier for ex-offenders trying to rebuild their lives after prison.

“Crime in America and violent crime is way down from where it was 50 years ago, but Baltimore bucks this trend, and moreover it’s gotten worse since Freddie Gray,” who died from an injury he suffered in police custody in 2015, said University of Maryland criminology professor Gary LaFree. “That’s tough for politicians. On one hand, there is a strong need to deal with the Black Lives Matter issue. But on the other hand, law-and-order is also a popular issue.”

Police at the scene in West Baltimore where a homicide detective was fatally shot in November. The crime remains unsolved. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun/AP)

The primary candidates have taken to painting Gov. Larry Hogan (R) as a do-nothing leader who leans on outdated public safety policies that exacerbate racial disparities and don’t deter crime. Former NAACP president Ben Jealous and former Montgomery County Council member Valerie Ervin in particular have been outspoken about how they see the criminal justice system as racist, and have proposed to dramatically reduce the number of young black men in prison by retooling sentencing and increasing drug treatment.

In a recent debate among the Democratic contenders, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III invoked Hogan’s predecessor, saying Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley’s data-driven approach and infusion of local dollars helped cut violent crime at local levels. “If you look at the first year we celebrated a 33 percent reduction in homicides in Prince George’s County, Governor O’Malley was there to kick off the announcement,” Baker said. “The state had been an intimate partner in every facet of that reduction, from our community policing to our outreach to the faith community to providing additional resources in homeland security.”

Baker said the same partnership no longer exists under the Hogan administration.

During the Democrats’ first televised debate, candidates spent as much time talking about what they said Hogan hasn’t done to reduce Baltimore’s crime problem as they spent discussing what they would do if elected.

“He’s MIA,” Baker said.

“Governor Hogan has walked away from the city,” state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (Montgomery) said.

Riots broke out in Baltimore in April 2015 after Freddie Gray’s death — just three months after Hogan took office. Hogan declared a state of emergency and called in the National Guard to help calm the city. In a recent campaign ad, Hogan highlighted his handling of the 2015 unrest as an example of his leadership.

Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said the governor’s support and involvement in Baltimore “couldn’t be more crystal clear.” He recently arranged to have the U.S. Marshals Service and the Maryland State Police work together to catch fugitives throughout the city, resulting in the arrests of about 300 repeat violent offenders, Mayer said. In 2016, the governor, along with Baltimore’s mayor, announced a $700 million program to raze blighted buildings in the city to make way for reinvestment. The latest phase of the program, targeting an additional 500 homes, launched in March.

“While the governor was working with the Democrats in the legislature to pass tougher sentences for repeat violent offenders and those who commit crimes with a gun, these candidates either opposed them or stood silent,” Mayer said. “When the governor was sending U.S. marshals into Baltimore City to sweep up hundreds of the most violent criminals in the city, these candidates might as well have been promising get-out-of-jail-free cards.”

The Democratic candidates agree that driving down gun violence is key to reducing violence in Baltimore.

Homicides are down this year compared with the same time last year, but the city tallied its 100th victim at the second-fastest pace in a decade, according to the Baltimore Sun. Homicides in 2017 — a record-setting year for killings per capita — included two high-
profile cases that remain unsolved: the death of an off-duty D.C. police officer shot in his car and the shooting of a Baltimore homicide detective while he was working a case.

Several candidates, including Jealous, Krishanti Vignarajah and Baltimore lawyer James Shea, have called for the expansion of the Safe Streets initiative in the city. The anti-violence program deploys former criminals as mediators to head off disputes and gun violence.

But the program has had mixed results, with some neighborhoods seeing improvements in gun violence and others little to no change, said Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research and co-chair of the Safe Streets advisory board. “Rather than just say we need more of Safe Streets, we simultaneously need to strengthen the program . . . and look at a more comprehensive strategy,” he said.

Jealous, who teaches criminal-justice policy at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and was the first candidate to issue a detailed crime plan, proposes creating a gun court in Maryland to specifically handle firearms cases. “It essentially prioritizes gun cases that will be quickly adjudicated so that the folks who are the most responsible for crime — violent, repeat offenders — aren’t getting tangled up in the criminal-justice system with delay,” said Kevin Harris, a spokesman for the Jealous campaign.

Madaleno says stricter gun-control laws like those he’s supported in recent years are the key to driving down gun violence, which he says is “epidemic” in Baltimore. “I find it hard to believe that you can stop the violence without stopping the flow of illegal firearms that are coming into the city and the state,” he said.

Entrepreneur Alec Ross said he would also seek more stringent gun-control laws, such as requiring that firearms have a biometric lock that would make them inoperable unless the owner’s fingerprint is scanned. Like others, he points to his ties to Baltimore when touting his public safety credentials. He and his wife moved to the city 25 years ago to teach in West Baltimore. Once, they counted the number of students they personally had taught who had been killed. “It’s jarring,” Ross said. “We stopped at 10. I’m sure there have been more.”

Webster said Hogan’s past strong rating from the National Rifle Association record and staunch support for mandatory-minimum sentences for certain violent offenders could represent weak spots for the governor against some liberal Democrats, even though Hogan signed sentencing-revision legislation in 2016 that passed the ­majority-Democratic legislature with broad bipartisan support. “Criminologists have long known that long, draconian sentencing is not beneficial and actually runs counter to what you want to achieve from a justice and public- safety standpoint,” Webster said. “It certainly is a national conversation and not unique to Maryland.”

The use of mandatory-minimum sentences is one of many tough-on-crime strategies that were popular decades ago but have more recently been renounced. Another, zero-tolerance policing, also has been widely criticized. Zero-tolerance was a hallmark of O’Malley’s tenure when he was mayor of Baltimore. But the federal government later said the policy has undermined trust in mainly black communities — trust that the Justice Department report said has to be rebuilt.

Ervin said criminal justice and public safety “is a very complex web” that requires a discussion about “structural racism and institutional racism.” As a former school board member, she has been involved with issues of how students suspended in schools often wind up in prisons. She hopes to address school safety, truancy and job creation as a way to get to the root of crime. “The way we keep people safe doesn’t happen alone in a vacuum,” Ervin said.

No matter what policies candidates promise or propose, what most matters is whether they can rally the right people to work on the issues and work together, said former Baltimore police commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, who held the job from 2007 to 2012. Under his watch, the number of annual homicides in the city dropped below 200, the lowest since the 1970s and a number unmatched since.

“Getting on top of violent crime in a place like Baltimore requires a comprehensive team approach, and so you have to marshal resources at a local, state and federal level,” said Bealefeld. He pointed to work with the state Division of Parole and Probation to identify recidivists and take a more pro­active approach to crime fighting.

“Everybody comes offering help, but not everybody understands how to help and how to put that in action,” Bealefeld said. “You need to show that you have a team of people that are ready to join your campaign or join your team to execute on those issues. If you don’t know that right now, we’re in a lot of trouble.”