MANCHESTER, NEW HAMPSHIRE — As politicians and groups across the political spectrum join forces to address the U.S.’ mass incarceration and police violence crises, former President Bill Clinton and other officials who implemented ‘tough on crime’ policies in the 1990s now say they regret their actions.
But former Maryland Governor and Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, who promoted a regime of ‘zero tolerance’ policing in the late 90s and early 2000s, told ThinkProgress this weekend that he has no regrets from his time leading what he called “the most addicted and most violent city in America.”
“We had a horrible problem in our city with the proliferation of open air drug markets,” O’Malley said. “People wanted them shut down, so that’s what we did. Yes, enforcement levels spiked. But we saved about 1,000 lives, probably.”
O’Malley spoke to ThinkProgress just after addressing the Democratic Party Convention of New Hampshire, where he is vying for the nomination against Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Lincoln Chafee, and Lawrence Lessig.
Since he was elected mayor of Baltimore in 1999, O’Malley’s criminal justice record included denying elderly prisoners parole and conducting mass arrests for low-level offenses, like loitering. The city ended up paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in a settlement for wrongful detentions.
While violent crime did go down in Baltimore while O’Malley was in office, it also dropped across the country, including in cities that did not conduct mass arrests.
Yet O’Malley did not dwell on this in the interview with ThinkProgress, instead focusing on his more progressive policies.
“I’ve been on a constant search for things that work to save and redeem lives,” he said. “I decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana. I repealed the death penalty. Those are two examples of things that don’t work. We greatly increased our drug treatment funding, an example of something that actually does work.”
The issue has dogged O’Malley from the day he launched his bid for president. When he announced his run for the White House in May in Baltimore, local activists held a die-in to protest his policing policies, which they say fueled the tension between residents of color and law enforcement still painfully visible today.
Just a few blocks away from the convention where O’Malley spoke, local Manchester activists gathered outside City Hall to march for police reform. Holding signs reading “Black Lives Matter” and “Justice For All,” the small group said they were demonstrating both for local reforms and in solidarity with Baltimore, Ferguson, and other communities struggling with police violence.
19-year-old Elijah Kendrick, the youth coordinator for the Manchester NAACP, told ThinkProgress he sees the tension and mutual distrust between black residents and police.
“My parents are always telling me, ‘If a cop stops you, make sure your pants are pulled up. Stop wearing a bandana. Put your music down. Make sure you say yes, sir and no, sir,’” he said. “It feels like American society is afraid of black people, and it hurts. They generally treat me like a thug, but I’m not a thug. I get good grades in school. I just want to be treated equal to everyone else.”
Veteran NAACP activist Willard Lett echoed these concerns, telling ThinkProgress: “There have not been any egregious incidences of police shootings here in Manchester. But there’s an undercurrent where people are marginalized and dehumanized on a day to day basis.”
Many of the group’s demands — including body cameras on police officers and racial bias training for all law enforcement — are already part of the O’Malley campaign’s criminal justice platform, which also includes decriminalizing marijuana on a national level and eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for low-level offenses. O’Malley was the first 2016 contender in either political party to release such a plan, though Bernie Sanders soon followed. Hillary Clinton, who like O’Malley and Sanders has been meeting with members of the Black Lives Matter movements, has yet to lay out her reform proposals. Yet the marchers told ThinkProgress O’Malley should be held accountable for his past actions, especially if he continues to defend them.
“He will have to answer for it,” said Lett. “Even if he’s not as extreme as some of the other candidates.”