POLITICS

Michael Steele Connects Martin O'Malley's Legacy As Baltimore Mayor To Freddie Gray Protests

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) proudly highlights his record as the mayor of Baltimore in discussing his crime reduction philosophy. But that legacy is coming under scrutiny as critics connect his past "zero-tolerance" approach to the ongoing protests over Freddie Gray's death, and as O'Malley considers seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.

The protests erupted following the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who suffered a fatal spinal injury while in police custody on April 19, about a week after he was arrested.

As reporters for The Washington Post pointed out, O’Malley has frequently touted the police crackdown during his tenure as mayor that led to a reduction in homicides and other crimes. But some Baltimore activists and community leaders say the "zero-tolerance" approach O'Malley supported increased the city's racial divide and aggravated a mistrust of law enforcement, as arrests for minor offenses such as loitering and littering increased dramatically.

Michael Steele, a former chair of the Republican National Committee, made that argument in an appearance on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" Tuesday. (Steele and O'Malley overlapped in office in Maryland, as the former was lieutenant governor from 2003 to 2007 and the latter was mayor of Baltimore from 1999 to 2007, and then governor from 2007 through 2014.)

"This is longstanding and very deep-rooted," Steele said. "This is really sort of the boiling point now around Freddie Gray's death. 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. The trigger, obviously, is the death of Freddie Gray, but there's systemic issues there that touch on poverty, education, jobs and neighborhoods that have been blighted for 30, 40 years. So while people see the flash point in 24 hours or 2 days, know that this has been a longstanding, simmering issue, the political leadership has failed, the business leadership has failed, and the community is frustrated."

When O'Malley was elected mayor, Baltimore had one of the highest rates of violence among American cities. In office, O'Malley coupled his policing strategies with a new civilian review board, and created a police misconduct and ethics division to prosecute misconduct. Excessive force complaints decreased by 35 percent from 2001 to 2006, and police-involved shootings also decreased.

O'Malley, for his part, released a statement Monday saying that the city must "come together" in response to Gray's death.

"I'm saddened that the City I love is in such pain this night. All of us share a profound feeling of grief for Freddie Gray and his family," O'Malley said. "We must come together as one City to transform this moment of loss and pain into a safer and more just future for all of Baltimore's people."

This story was updated to add context about O'Malley's record on crime.

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