Nero Tolerance: As O'Malley announces a run for president, a look at his Baltimore legacy

City Paper

On Saturday, Martin O’Malley officially announced his bid for the presidency amid Baltimore’s most murderous month in more than 40 years.

Baltimore City saw 43 murders in May, the deadliest month since 1972, when almost 300,000 more people lived in the city.

Meanwhile, arrests for all crimes have plummeted in the wake of the riots and the criminal charges filed against six officers involved in Freddie Gray’s murder. Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3 President Gene Ryan announced last Thursday that police are more fearful of going to jail “for doing their jobs properly” than of getting shot. Police Commissioner Anthony Batts apologized to the rank and file for giving them insufficient training and direction ahead of the riot, in which dozens of cops were injured.

But the police department has been dysfunctional for decades, beset by poor training, low pay, and high turnover at all levels.

Add to the mix consistent meddling by politicians and infighting between police and prosecutors, and you have a perfect storm of stupidity, and an institution that is all but beyond reform if equivalent changes are not also made to the city’s political culture.

That is why Martin O’Malley, the former mayor and Maryland governor and now official candidate for president of the United States, has so much to answer for regarding last month’s riot and the subsequent killing spree.

Though many focus on O’Malley’s zeal for “zero tolerance” policing, that was just a small part of the story.  O’Malley’s real legacy lies in his attempts to micromanage his police chiefs—and what became of them when they displeased their boss. O’Malley’s vaunted CitiStat system promised “timely, accurate information shared by all.” But behind the scenes, the guitar-strumming mayor did everything he could to control the message coming from the department, including forbidding retired police brass from saying a word about what happened inside. His thirst for higher office fueled by quick, “measurable” results, O’Malley kicked off a long season of instability in the department’s command structure that has hobbled it ever since. Here is that history, condensed.

In 1999, a $400,000 study by New York-based police consultants Linder-Maple stated that “The Baltimore Police Department is dysfunctional in effect and to no small degree corrupt."

Queried by a Sun reporter, Linder walked back the “corrupt” statement, saying it was really just a matter of perception. But the perception was based on many strange doings from before and since that date. In late 2000, someone burglarized the Internal Affairs office, swiping boxes of files which were later found in a trash bin—behind a doughnut shop—in the county.

If that case was ever solved, the results were never made public. The case against the cop then under investigation was dropped, prompting O’Malley to rail that then-State’s Attorney Pat Jessamy did not have “the goddamn guts to get off her ass and go in and try this case.”

After serving for a year as a Baltimore Police officer, Peter Moskos reported in his book “Cop in the Hood” that city officers routinely gamed the system to get overtime in court. This kind of low-level corruption was rampant in the early 2000s, and speaks to the culture of the department—a culture that has seldom been discussed or analyzed publicly before or since.

Instead, a small matter involving misuse of a discretionary fund led to the biggest police corruption scandal of the decade: that of O’Malley’s second police chief, Ed Norris.

This is ancient history now, of course. Norris eventually returned to Baltimore and became a successful radio host. But in hindsight, the Norris case says something about the culture of Baltimore politics generally, and O’Malley’s governing style specifically.

O’Malley’s first police chief, Ron Daniel, quit the job after two months for reasons he never made entirely clear. Norris, meanwhile, had been recruited from New York—where Linder-Maple came from—as Daniel’s second banana to institute a zero-tolerance police strategy using a vaunted new tool called CompStat, which used computers to help pinpoint crime hot spots.

As he came on in 2000, Norris found that command depth and experience in the department were already thin. He brought in a few New Yorkers to augment the bench.

Norris was a respected commissioner and a hard worker, but he clashed with O’Malley over lower-level personnel decisions and especially with O’Malley’s former campaign manager, Sean Malone, who landed at the department as its legal advisor. In late 2002, Norris left to become State Police commissioner but a year later was indicted on federal charges of misusing a police discretionary fund—and wrongfully claiming that $9,000 his father lent him for a down payment on his home was a “gift.”

He pled out and got six months in prison.

That the case against Norris was politically motivated is all but indisputable. It was a perfect example of how hard-ball Baltimore politics can be, and how compliant the U.S. Attorney can be, if he is obsessed with high-profile public corruption cases. (The U.S. Attorney, Thomas DiBiagio, was later removed after emails leaked in which he was depicted as looking for high-level corruption cases.) Norris spoke at length about his conviction in a two-part story for City Paper in 2005 (“Eddie,” Features, June 1 and 8, 2005).

After a respected in-house candidate was passed over, another obscure New York transplant, Kevin Clark, followed Norris as commissioner.

And, again, under O’Malley’s watch, the police commissioner found himself embroiled in a bizarre drama, this one based on allegations of domestic violence.

In 2004 Clark declined to resign over the allegations, for which he was never charged. Then his office was raided by a SWAT team and he was removed, literally, at gunpoint.

Clark later said he was investigating corruption in City Hall when he was fired. Among the matters allegedly under investigation: data on Malone’s computer which—in another bizarre coincidence—had been stolen in a burglary. The Sun later reported that it was about pornography on the computer. Malone was never charged with anything and went on to become a top lobbyist in Annapolis. Meanwhile, all of the Internal Affairs cases open when Clark was removed were closed out, Clark said.

Clark fought his case all the way through 2013, arguing that the public law governing the mayor’s right to remove the police commissioner—which required good cause such as malfeasance or incompetence—trumped the contract he signed that allowed the mayor to remove him without case. A judge ruled that Clark was right about that, but in 2008 the General Assembly quietly gave the mayor of Baltimore unfettered authority to fire the police commissioner for any reason.

Clark was followed by Leonard Hamm, who continued O’Malley’s policies under Mayor Sheila Dixon, who took over as mayor when O’Malley won the governorship.

Meanwhile, as high-profile cases of conflict or corruption occasionally leaked in the press, police command staff retired under an O’Malley-era gag rule that required exiting commanders to sign or lose accrued compensatory time. The contracts, some lasting five years, forbade the ex-police from discussing any aspect of department policy or—in a contract obtained by City Paper—from criticizing the policies of the City Council or mayor. O’Malley’s affable, brainy, guitar-picking public persona concealed a control freak obsessed with secrecy. He had his reasons.

By the mid-2000s, several years into O’Malley’s mayoral tenure, arrest rates in Baltimore were through the roof. The murder rate was dropping, and—by CitiStat, at least—other crime was down as well. But all over the city, anecdotally, two things were heard: 1. Arrests were arbitrary and capricious, with anyone on the street a potential target, and 2. Dirty cops were robbing street dealers and going into business themselves.

There was William King and Antonio Murray sentenced to three centuries in prison for stealing drugs from dealers; both officers said they were doing what they were trained to do. Kendell Richburg was also caught robbing drug dealers and selling drugs, then Mark Lunsford stole cash and jewelry from drug dealers, and fabricated evidence so he could split payments to informers. He got 20 months.

The big, splashy cases made news, then disappeared down the memory hole, along with their implications. Jessamy created a special division in her office to prosecute dirty cops. Relations between the police and prosecutor’s office suffered as some officers’ names were published in the media, others not.

Dixon asked Hamm to step down and replaced him with Frederick Bealefeld in mid-2007, as her first election as mayor approached. Bealefeld brought some stability even as he fought Jessamy at every turn.

Drug-dealing cops still made occasional news. There was Daniel Redd, sentenced in 2012 to 20 years for dealing heroin while in uniform—on police property. Redd was buddies with Maj. Nathan Warfield, who at the time headed the department’s Internal Affairs Division. He was removed from his post after pictures of him, Redd, and a heroin dealer at a night club circulated. Warfield retired soon after.

These are just big drug cases. They do not deal with the street beatings, the theft of time, the membership of some officers in motorcycle gangs, or the several cases in which police guns—from evidence or elsewhere—have ended up in the hands of people with no business having them.

Anthony Fata shot himself and claimed a black guy did it, to get worker’s compensation, Lamin Manneh was caught pimping his wife, and there was the big bust—17 officers convicted in a kickback scheme with a towing company that did not have the requisite city contract. The “towing scandal,” as it is now universally remembered, burnished Bealefeld’s bona fides as a cop’s cop who brooked no shenanigans. Jessamy’s successor, Gregg Bernstein, disbanded her police prosecution unit just as that scandal unfolded. He also fired a prosecutor who was investigating a high-ranking police officer with personal ties to him and his wife. 

Commissioner Anthony Batts came in with a mandate and a promise to clean house. He has told the press that he’s removed 50 officers for misconduct since he took the job in 2013. City Paper has asked the department to name those officers. The department responded by saying it has received our request; this week The Sun’s Mark Puente reported the figure is bogus. The internal discipline system in the Baltimore Police Department has never shown any signs of consistency, and it has never been anything like transparent.

And O’Malley’s CitiStat, which was supposed to provide transparency, has not.

“Together, we made our city a safer, healthier, and better place for kids,” O’Malley told the crowd Saturday as he announced his presidential bid. “Together, we made our city believe again. We invented a new and better way of governing called CitiStat, and we got things done.”

Back in the mid-2000s, as police ramped up computer-aided zero tolerance, real crimes that citizens reported were being downgraded either by the responding officers, who sometimes declined to take a report, or by their superiors. Rapes were disappearing from the statistics. O’Malley cited his falling crime statistics as proof that his policies worked.

The murder rate dropped—as O’Malley says, perhaps a thousand people lived who would have died otherwise. But the murder clearance rate dropped too. More cases went unsolved and the streets hardened.

Freddie Gray, Tyrone West, Anthony Anderson, and others who have died in Baltimore police custody are the product of a decade and a half of hard policing done with broken oversight. The murder spree that now grips the city, and the “police slowdown” that some blame for it, is not a simple or recent cause-and-effect phenomenon. If police are scared, they have good reason to be: People in the communities they work in do not trust them, and their superiors must contend with a politically driven, statistic-dominated bureaucracy that leaves little room for creativity, compassion, or real police work. Perhaps better people at the top would have done a better job. But the system in which they work made it very hard to do, at best. That is Martin O’Malley’s Baltimore legacy.

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