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In Light of Baltimore, Martin O'Malley's Record Comes Under Fire

His involvement in the crisis is receiving mixed reviews especially because his previous role with community policing is highly controversial.
/ Source: NBC News

With ongoing protests gripping Baltimore after the death of 25-year old Freddie Gray in police custody, the former mayor of Baltimore and potential presidential candidate has returned to his home to "(participate) in the healing process."

But Martin O'Malley's attempt to insert himself into the city's difficult chapter is receiving mixed reviews, especially because his previous role in policing as head of Charm City is fraught with controversy. Also the former governor of Maryland, his tough on crime policies are seen as having fueled at least some of the sentiment behind the protests.

“Governor O’Malley has arrived in Baltimore to be with the people in the city that he lives. Since last night, he has been reaching out to community leaders, the Mayor, and members of the clergy to offer his assistance where appropriate and needed,” his spokeswoman Lis Smith said in a statement. He cut short a trip giving paid speeches in Ireland.

No longer having an official platform in Maryland politics, it’s unclear what O’Malley could do. His campaign says he “will be doing what he can to raise awareness about volunteer opportunities, while participating in the healing process with the people of Baltimore.”

One community leader, Diane Bell McKoy, the CEO of Associated Black Charities and longtime community leader, said she’s not sure what O’Malley can bring to the city.

“I don’t know what (his)role would be. He’s not governor. He’s not mayor,” she said. “If he was going to turn over his national resources running for president – the city could use those resources.”

O’Malley has struggled to gain traction in the very early stages of this presidential election against formidable front-runner Hillary Clinton. He is positioning himself to the left of Clinton on economic issues but on the issue of policing and criminal justice, O'Malley's past could be more of a black mark than a boon to the progressive voter he's attempting to court.

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On the pre-campaign trail (O’Malley hasn’t yet announced his presidential run), O’Malley often touts the fact that he dramatically reduced the crime rate in Baltimore during his time as mayor.

“Baltimore went on to achieve the biggest reduction in crime of any major city in America,” O’Malley recently said in Polk County, Iowa.

While fact checkers have determined that statement to be mostly true, the way he brought down crime during his tenure from 2000 until 2007 invited many critics.

Those critics were not silenced Tuesday evening when O’Malley was heckled as he walked down a city street in Baltimore, the Washington Post reported. People panned his crack down on crime that brought the crime levels down but also led to lawsuits and record number of arrests.

During his tenure, O’Malley implemented a no-tolerance policing policy that lead to the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP suing him in 2006 for "a broad pattern of abuse" involving arrests made without probable cause. (The city agreed to an $870,000 settlement in 2010 that included the monitoring of some types of arrests.)

O’Malley ran Baltimore in the back end of the tough-on-crime era, when crime was high in American cities and politicians vowed to lock up criminals. His aides also point out that he doubled funding for drug treatment, expanded minority hiring and supported an independent civilian review board. They also note that as governor he decriminalized marijuana possession and repealed the death penalty.

McKoy, who advocates for changes to the system that inherently make it difficult for poor people and people of color to escape poverty and the criminal justice system, admits that during O'Malley's time as mayor, crime was so bad that people wanted it to end that it took a while for O’Malley’s methods to be critically analyzed.

“Everyone wanted such a relief from the crime. How that relief came about, I’m not sure everybody understood at what price,” she said. “You can’t do it at the expense of giving up people’s rights.”

A decade later as heavy-handed police practices are under fire and in the public view, criticism of O’Malley is surfacing. Former RNC Chairman Michael Steele, who was Maryland’s lieutenant governor during O’Malley’s mayoral tenure, criticized O’Malley on Morning Joe Tuesday morning.

“But you go back to 2005, 2006 when then-Mayor O'Malley had a policy in place where everything was on lock-down. You couldn't sit on your stoop, people were harassed, and so all these tensions have been building and simmering for some time,” Steele said.

Robert Nowlin, head of the Pen Lucy foundation in Baltimore, defended O'Malley. "It was a different time and different tactics had to be used. At that time our city was getting out of control," Nowlin said. "We had zero tolerance and at that time we needed it."

Criticism of O’Malley didn’t stop with Steele, who is a Republican, however. Members of his own party also took issue with his controversial tactics. Baltimore city councilman Carl Stokes didn’t name him, but it was clear he was talking about O’Malley who came into office in 2000.

“And then, around 2000, we got a new mayor, a new commissioner of police, and that commissioner said ‘we’re not social workers.’ So they ended their relationship with the young people in the city. They stopped the athletic leagues, they stopped the mentoring, the stopped the computer labs. We need to re-engage our police officers with our community, with our young people so that they see the police as friends and mentors as opposed to occupied forces,” he said in an interview with MSNBC’s Thomas Roberts.

O'Malley's ideas for policing reforms have changed. McKoy said that when the current mayor of Baltimore, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who has been in office 2010, was considering her plans to address crime, O’Malley urged her to adopt a strategy similar to his. But at an event hosted by the National Action Network conference earlier this month, O'Malley called for the use of body cameras by police and mandatory reporting of policy abuse to the FBI.