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O’Malley’s claim about crime rates in Baltimore

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“(In 1999), Baltimore had become the most violent, the most addicted and the most abandoned city in america. The biggest enemy that we faced was not the drug dealers or crack cocaine. It was a lack of belief. … We started setting goals with deadlines and instead of simply setting goals with inputs, as government always does, we started measuring outputs. … When the people of Baltimore saw their government was working again, they rallied too. Together, we put into action that powerful belief, that in our city, there is no such thing as a spare American. That we’re all in this together. And over the next 10 years, Baltimore went on to achieve the biggest reduction in Part 1 crime in any major city in America.”

–Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley (D), speech at Polk County Iowa Democratic Party Dinner, April 10, 2015 

One of O’Malley’s favorite stump speech lines is about the drop in crime rates in Baltimore when he was the city’s mayor. Frequently in speeches, interviews and even his Reddit Ask Me Anything Q&A, he touts that for a 10-year period after he became mayor, the city achieved the “biggest reduction” in crimes (which he sometimes specifies as Part 1 crimes) in any major city in America.

O’Malley served as mayor of Baltimore from 1999 through 2006, and was Maryland governor from 2007 to 2015.

As O’Malley weighs a 2016 presidential run, his critics are raising questions about his record on policing strategies. This is a timely topic, as Baltimore residents take to the streets to protest the police-custody death of Freddie Gray. Gray, 25, died on April, 19, 2015, a week after was arrested. Police say he suffered injuries to his spine. His death has become the latest symbol in the ongoing national debate over policing strategies.

The Fact Checker obviously takes no position on O’Malley’s policing tactics. But it is worth exploring his statement about his record. Are his figures accurate? What is the context of those figures, especially in comparison to rates in other jurisdictions?

The Facts

O’Malley is referring to 1999-2009 data from the FBI, which tracks crimes reported to law enforcement agencies. Part 1 crimes are serious crimes that are likely to be reported to police, and are divided into violent and property crimes. These crimes include criminal homicide, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, arson and motor vehicle theft.

O’Malley usually clarifies that he is referring to Part 1 (i.e., overall) crimes.

FBI data confirm his calculation. The overall crime rate (the number of crimes per 100,000 people) fell by 48 percent during that decade, more than any other large police agency in the country. Specifically for violent crimes, the Baltimore City Police Department saw the third highest drop (behind Los Angeles and New York City) during the period.

In 1999, Baltimore had the highest violent and property crime rate among the major police agencies in the country. In 2009, the city dropped to the 13th highest.

Some criminologists measure the number of homicides to measure crime levels. In 2009, Baltimore saw the lowest homicide rates since O’Malley took office. (Prior to his tenure, however, there was a high homicide rate following the crack cocaine epidemic.) But the city’s homicide rate was still ranked second highest out of cities with more than 500,000 residents.

Baltimore was not alone. The city’s drop in crime rates mirrored a national trend, as other major cities saw large drops leading up to 2009, with some at decades-low levels.

One of O’Malley’s strategies, which he refers to in the Iowa speech, was the measuring of input and output. Baltimore began using CompStat, which started in New York City in 1994 and closely tracked arrest data and practices. This strategy is linked to the “zero-tolerance” policy that some large police departments adopted at the time.

Such approach to policing led to increased arrests. By 2005, well into O’Malley’s tenure as mayor, Baltimore police arrested so many people that judges had to free arrestees because they could not get court hearings within 24 hours, as required, according to the Baltimore Sun. That year, there were 108,447 people arrested in a city of roughly 600,000 residents. According to a June 2010 report by the Justice Policy Institute, about two-thirds of the people in jail were there for non-violent offenses.

A new police commissioner switched the arrest strategy to target the most violent offenders, driving down arrest numbers to 77,595 in 2009, the Baltimore Sun reported.

Critics now point to O’Malley’s record, saying the zero-tolerance approach contributed to the current tensions between Baltimore residents and the police department. But Baltimore has had a long history of racial tensions amid allegations of police brutality, dating to the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The FBI cautions against making comparisons with its data, in a warning published annually with its crime statistics. The agency cautions the media, tourism agencies and others in the public from using reported crime figures to compile rankings of cities and counties. These rankings “lead to simplistic and/or incomplete analyses that often create misleading perceptions,” as there are many variables that factor into the unique geographic and demographic situation in a city or state.

Steven Kearney, a former O’Malley adviser, said the “ambitious” policing, guided by CompStat and similar principles of measuring arrests, was just one of O’Malley’s approach to driving down crime rates. He also created policies and to hold police officers accountable, increase the availability of drug treatment and provide more opportunities for children and students in schools, Kearney said.

Kearney acknowledged that many factors contribute to lowered crime rates during any government official’s tenure, but there is only so much government can control: “It’s government’s responsibility to make a difference where it can.  Baltimore’s policing strategy evolved over time and as violent crime was reduced, arrests also declined — a trend that has continued in the years since.  Baltimore has made a lot of progress reducing crime, but the work certainly continues.”

The Pinocchio Test

At The Fact Checker, we often are critical of politicians bragging about successes during their term — such as job gains and drops in crime — that can result from numerous factors out of their control. Such claims usually result in Two Pinocchios. But O’Malley uses a specific measurement of FBI data, and his claim about Part 1 crime rates from 1999-2009 check out. It is to his credit that he references this wonky measurement most of the time in his statements, when most politicians would be tempted to drop that caveat.

But we also take the FBI’s warnings against comparing raw crime rates seriously.  O’Malley’s policies as mayor may have contributed to the decline in crime rates, but there are many variables at play. As evidence of that, Baltimore’s crime rate trend mirrored other major cities at that time; his statement does not provide that perspective.

One Pinocchio

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