‘The Wire’ Creator Demolishes Baltimore Crime Myths Pushed by Martin O’Malley

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

Just as Martin O’Malley, Baltimore’s Democrat ex-mayor, prepares to announce a run for the White house, he faces devastating and detailed criticism for his role in creating the mess in Baltimore from a noted expert on the city: David Simon, reporter, author, and creator of the seminal HBO crime drama The Wire.

Former Baltimore Mayor and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley isn’t a household name, but it appears he’s about to take on Hillary Clinton for the Democrat nomination. The New York Times just announced O’Malley’s hiring of a political director who previously worked with Barack Obama and called O’Malley’s presidential announcement “almost certain.”

O’Malley recently told NBC’s Meet The Press that he “won’t think of announcing” his presidential bid anywhere other than Baltimore.

It’s not a great time to be a former mayor of Baltimore, however. Rioting, looting, and unrest in the city became front page headlines for a week, as the result of tension between Baltimore’s black community and the police.

The affable Irish Catholic Democrat Martin O’Malley has a response already prepped: he’s the guy whose no-nonsense policing actually lowered crime rates enormously when he ran Baltimore.

A recent interview with The Wire scribe David Simon on The Marshall Project’s website, conducted in the wake of the Baltimore riots, punctured O’Malley’s narrative.

Simon — a Democrat who says he would vote for O’Malley if he becomes the Democrat nominee — has no ideological ax to grind. He also said that, despite clashing with O’Malley over production of The Wire, he has no personal animus against the would-be presidential candidate.

The picture of Baltimore under Mayor Martin O’Malley painted by Simon was as gripping as any script he has ever written. The story Simon told has nothing to do with some conservative ideal of tough policing. It’s not about “broken window” policing policies, as a Bloomberg article on O’Malley recently described his crime strategy, in a drive-by smear of law-and-order conservatism.

No, the Baltimore scenario Simon laid out in gripping detail is about how ambitious Democrat mayor Martin O’Malley created and encouraged an environment of lawlessness by the police. It’s about how O’Malley cynically manipulated crime statistics in order to pad his resume for his future political career, a strategy he continues to employ as he prepares his presidential run.

The plan seems to be working so far. A recent Washington Post story looked into Martin O’Malley’s claims about reducing crime:

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 (…)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.

Ultimately, WaPo judged O’Malley’s claim “mostly true,” but that was before the David Simon interview revealed that O’Malley’s claims cannot be checked by simply looking at the numbers.

David Simon’s Detailed Accusations

In the Marshall Project interview, David Simon comes across as a straight shooter who has a lot to get off his chest. The burning of Baltimore seems to have hit him on a gut level, and he wants to confess the behind-the-scenes facts he’s known for years.

Simon’s stories in the interview have the ring of truth because they are so densely packed with details Simon picked up in the years he worked on The Wire, talking with insiders over a couple of drinks late into the evening.

Given the obsession with race shared by the Obama Administration and mainstream media, it’s notable that David Simon downplays the racial aspect of what went wrong in Baltimore. As he says he learned working on the book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets:

The most brutal cops in our sector of the Western District were black. The guys who would really kick your ass without thinking twice were black officers. If I had to guess and put a name on it, I’d say that at some point, the drug war was as much a function of class and social control as it was of racism.

Simon’s essential thesis is that in order to bring down crime stats to pump up his future political ambitions, Democrat Martin O’Malley took actions that destroyed the quality of policing in Baltimore.

As an example, look at Simon’s assertion that under Mayor O’Malley, the police began to do massive sweeps for no other reason than to gin up arrest numbers.

They actually had police supervisors stationed with printed forms at the city jail – forms that said, essentially, you can go home now if you sign away any liability the city has for false arrest, or you can not sign the form and spend the weekend in jail until you see a court commissioner. And tens of thousands of people signed that form.

Simon points out how one of the unintended consequences was to further drive a wedge between the black community and police, a situation that Simon believes came to a head in the Freddie Grey riots. It’s the sort of thing that won’t show up just from looking at crime statistics. Simon offers an indictment of how O’Malley’s lawless law enforcement impacted the black citizens of Baltimore:

O’Malley defends the wholesale denigration of black civil rights to this day. Never mind what it did to your jury pool: now every single person of color in Baltimore knows the police will lie — and that’s your jury pool for when you really need them for when you have, say, a felony murder case. But what it taught the police department was that they could go a step beyond the manufactured probable cause, and the drug-free zones and the humbles – the targeting of suspects through less-than-constitutional procedure. Now, the mass arrests made clear, we can lock up anybody, we don’t have to figure out who’s committing crimes, we don’t have to investigate anything, we just gather all the bodies — everybody goes to jail.

Simon also describes how O’Malley’s emphasis on making arrests to pump up numbers twisted the normal incentives for good police work. Both the incomes and career advancement of police officers became tied not to fighting real crime, but to conducting activities that would give O’Malley the stats he could brag about. Simon explains how police officers making legitimate collars spent longer on cases, which meant they racked up less overtime, so:

…you fail to reward the cop who actually does police work. But worse, it’s time to make new sergeants or lieutenants, and so you look at the computer and say: Who’s doing the most work? And they say, man, this guy had 80 arrests last month, and this other guy’s only got one. Who do you think gets made sergeant?

Some of the most jaw-dropping admissions in Simon’s interview relate to he what describes as one the big secrets behind O’Malley’s dramatic drop in crime: “cooking the books” by simply ignoring, or re-categorizing, crimes out of existence.

Simon claims that crime victims were sometimes intimidated out of reporting offenses:

In the Southwest District, a victim would try to make an armed robbery complaint, saying , ‘I just got robbed, somebody pointed a gun at me,’ and what they would do is tell him, well, okay, we can take the report but the first thing we have to do is run you through the computer to see if there’s any paper on you. Wait, you’re doing a warrant check on me before I can report a robbery? Oh yeah, we gotta know who you are before we take a complaint. You and everyone you’re living with? What’s your address again? You still want to report that robbery?

To push down the numbers for certain types of crime, Simon says the Baltimore police under Mayor O’Malley simply erased inconvenient facts:

Guns disappeared from reports and armed robberies became larcenies. Deadly weapons were omitted from reports and aggravated assaults became common assaults.

It won’t shock anyone who followed The Wire that its creator ultimately pins the problem on the drug war, but Simon isn’t concerned with the potential benefits of legalizing drugs, so much as he is with the negative impact that the war on drugs had on policing. Simon’s advice:

Take away the actual incentive to do bad or useless police work, which is what the drug war has become.

Martin O’Malley’s Response

After Simon’s interview came out, it earned cursory glances from a few mainstream media outlets but nowhere near the attention it should have been given, as it linked an upcoming presidential candidate with parts of Baltimore reduced to a smoking ruin.

For example, the Huffington Post gave the accusations against Martin O’Malley a scant 549 words, which included a response from O’Malley’s press flack:

David Simon is a great fiction writer and television producer but facts matter in a debate as serious as this — many of his claims were already debunked by the Washington Post in 2006.

The Huffington Post doesn’t seem to have followed up on that story, however. The 2006 WaPo article does not exonerate Martin O’Malley. Instead, it confirms that a review produced evidence supporting exactly the sort of accusations Simon made in his interview:

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.”

Team O’Malley goes on in the article to smear whistleblower Clark, apparently hoping no one would actually read the article they touted to defend their candidate.

Any journalist thinking of covering Martin O’Malley’s upcoming run for the White House needs to read the Simon interview and then start asking O’Malley some tough questions, with followups.

If O’Malley were a Republican, it’s certain that they media would go over every inch of his record with a fine-tooth comb.

But Martin O’Malley is Democrat.

That means it’s up to citizen journalists and dedicated voters to do the research themselves. There’s no better place to start then with David Simon’s account of the damage O’Malley’s ambition did to the city of Baltimore.


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