“Fuck out of here, white boy!” someone yelled at presidential hopeful and former Baltimore City Mayor Martin O’Malley back in 2015.
It was April 29, 2015 to be exact, just two days after Baltimoreans revolted in response to the police killing of Freddie Gray, burning a CVS pharmacy and some cop cars, and doing plenty of other property damage.
O’Malley was back in the city he once ran—which was now an international news story and framed by some hungry reporters as “the next Ferguson”—and already teasing a 2016 presidential run.
“Get out!” another person in the crowd yelled at the then-presidential hopeful.
Baltimoreans who showed up to heckle O’Malley that day were there to demand answers for the “zero tolerance” policies he imposed on the city, which they believed created many of the conditions that led to Freddie Gray’s death and to the uprising that followed. In 1999, O’Malley ran for mayor on fixing the city’s homicide problem (315 homicides in 1998) by applying a “zero tolerance” approach to crime, a “broken windows”-style policy of arresting people for incredibly low-level charges such as jaywalking, loitering, open container and so on, under the belief that this helps reduce crime. The theory, quite simply is: If you lock up more people, there will be fewer people around to commit crimes.
“Zero tolerance enforcement made police interaction a daily fact of life for some Baltimore residents and provoked widespread community disillusionment with BPD,” the Department of Justice said in its 2016 report on Baltimore City Police.
These policies meant the city’s arrest numbers exploded and further enabled police to make unconstitutional stops and enact mass arrests. There were 80,775 arrests in Baltimore City in 1999. Over the next few years, arrests would increase—peaking at 110,164 in 2003. Then arrests began to slightly decline again. By 2007, there were still 82,529 annual arrests. That is a staggering number for a majority-Black city with an overall population of around 620,000.
“You caused this,” someone else told the former mayor and governor of Maryland as he strolled down the street, the remains of the burned CVS standing nearby.
“Zero tolerance” began to lose its foothold over the city in 2007, due to criticisms and lawsuits from the ACLU and O’Malley’s move to governor. Sheila Dixon became Baltimore’s mayor and was tasked with reducing the murder rate further while also reducing the arrest rate, which had exploded under O’Malley. For a brief few years, arrests were reduced and homicides dropped too.
In 2011, there were 196 homicides and 60,009 arrests.
In 2022, concerns about rising murder rates, paired with media scaremongering around “crime spikes” and a concerted, bad-faith effort to frame “Defund the Police” as some leftist pipedream, have swung Democrats back to O’Malley-esque thinking about crime reduction.
While annual arrests will likely never even get close to the 100,000-plus level of the “zero tolerance” era, there is a growing disconnect between Mayor Brandon Scott’s stated support for “defund” in 2020 and the Scott of today who, just days after cops shot and killed a teenager named Donnell Rochester, said the police do a “fabulous job.” An op-ed by Scott published in the Baltimore Sun this week called for “transparency, accountability, and meaningful civilian oversight”—the same things that elected officials have been saying for decades will finally change policing.
To make this strange political moment even stranger, Katie Curran O’Malley, former prosecutor, career judge, and wife of Martin O’Malley, is running for Maryland Attorney General. The platform, as described on her campaign website, is a combination of reform-heavy, Biden administration-style gestures to more training (which also means more spending on police) and tweaks to the criminal legal system.
Like many Democrats two years out from the nationwide George Floyd uprisings, Curran O’Malley intends to split the difference between police reform and public safety: “We don’t need to choose between public safety and accountability in policing. We can and must do both,” Curran O’Malley tweeted earlier this week.
To get a sense of how difficult it is not just to pass police reforms but to enact those that have already been passed into law, one of Curran O’Malley’s campaign promises is simply to make sure last year’s police transparency law, Anton’s Law, is actually enforced: “[Curran O’Malley will] ensure that local jurisdictions fully abide by Anton’s Law, an important piece of 2021 legislation that requires criminal investigations and misconduct records of police officers to be publicly available information,” her website reads. There is nothing in her platform that explicitly addresses her husband’s “zero tolerance” policies.
Meanwhile, Ivan Bates and Roya Hanna, two of the candidates for Baltimore City State’s Attorney, are both running on retracting Mosby’s non-prosecution policies. If either candidate wins the race, 2023 will be a year in which people who use drugs, people who sell drugs, sex workers, and people who experience homelessness must once again fear more arrests and harassment.
(As Battleground Baltimore discovered, data on the past 30 years of arrests in the city show little causation—let alone correlation—between arrests and crime reduction, or between gun seizures and crime reduction.)
Even the city’s “progressive prosecutor,” Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby (who has been federally indicted) released an interactive dashboard that primarily focuses on tough-on-crime metrics such as conviction rates and the number of indictments.
In short, the push for more police and more aggressive policing has returned as a revanchist solution to modest criminal legal system changes, and as short-term “fix” for a homicide rate that is once again passing 300 a year, just as it was in 1999 when O’Malley ran on “zero tolerance.”
In 2021, Baltimore City endured 337 homicides.
The creep back towards “zero tolerance” is not a surprise—the mentality never really entirely left the police department. In 2016, the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice’s report on Baltimore City Police warned city officials about the lingering effects of “zero tolerance” among police higher-ups.
“Many BPD supervisors continue to reinforce zero tolerance enforcement. Officers patrolling predominantly African-American neighborhoods routinely receive orders to ‘clear corners’ by stopping or arresting African-American youth standing on sidewalks,” the DOJ report said. “To restore the community’s confidence in BPD and ensure that its policing services are being provided equitably, BPD must continue to improve its policies, training, data collection and analysis, and accountability systems.”
While elected officials and those running for office are convinced they can reform the police while expanding their powers and increasing their budgets, Baltimoreans—like the ones who told O’Malley to get out of town—are skeptical. Especially with another O’Malley running for office this year, the impact of “zero tolerance” cannot be forgotten.
Back in 2018, defense attorney (and former public defender) Joshua Insley told me about the effect “zero tolerance” had on Baltimore’s Black residents in no uncertain terms. Insley first became a public defender in 2004—a year in which Baltimore Police made 100,388 arrests. He compared “zero tolerance” to a new “Jim Crow.”
“I’d come off one day in Central Booking and there were hundreds and hundreds of bail abuses. And charges for open containers, loitering and trespassing,” Insley said. “It was people being arrested for being poor and Black and that’s all it was.”