Until last month, part of the narrative surrounding Martin O’Malley was that he was the generally successful mayor of a big city; a mayor whose so-called ‘zero-tolerance’ or ‘broken windows’ approach to policing led to an overall drop in murders.
Then the riots happened.
Towson University assistant professor of political science John Bullock says that tough-on-crime approach under O’Malley damaged the relationship between some residents and police.
“There was the lawsuit of the ACLU that talked about those unfounded arrests or illegal arrests,” says Bullock, who specializes in urban government politics. “And there’s also people who now have criminal records as a result of that.”
And those criminal records can make finding a job difficult.
During the unrest, O’Malley returned to Baltimore to visit the affected areas and faced questions about broken windows. It’s a term used when people are arrested for petty crimes like littering with the idea that they’ll be less inclined to commit more serious ones. Dr. Natasha Pratt-Harris, an associate professor of criminal justice at Morgan State University, says the problem with broken windows is that crime isn’t just a criminal justice issue.
“What you want to actually address is social issues that need to be addressed to prevent broken windows in the first place,” says Pratt-Harris. “I’m talking about social and economic issues the police can’t address. I’m talking about school system issues which the police can’t address. I’m talking about health issues which the police can’t address.”
Others, however, have a different take on zero tolerance and what has happened in Baltimore.
“Zero tolerance doesn’t lead to riots,” says Tony Carbonetti, the former chief of staff to New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Carbonetti also served as Giuliani’s senior political advisor during the latter’s 2008 presidential run. Mayor Giuliani was an advocate of so-called zero tolerance policing at a time when New York experienced more than 2,400 murders—in 1993 alone. Carbonetti doesn’t think O’Malley’s approach to crime fighting when he was mayor eight years ago is to blame for riots that took place last month.
“We had zero tolerance in New York City,” notes Carbonetti. “The previous two mayors, maybe three mayors before us, all had riots. We never had any riots in New York when Mayor Giuliani was in charge. What leads to the riots is the ‘Let’s let them vent.’”
Still, criminology is an incredibly complex field of study and there is much debate over how and why crime rates rise and fall. Even the term zero tolerance can be confusing. Lawrence Sherman, a distinguished professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Maryland, cautions against easy explanations of changes in crime rates.
“Whether it’s called broken windows or zero tolerance, the idea that you enforce all the little stuff 100%, then the big stuff goes away, is simply premised on a false assumption,” says Sherman. “Because you can’t enforce all the little stuff.”
How Democrats view all of this could end up playing a role in the Democratic primaries next year. In order for O’Malley to win, he’ll need the support of several power centers—including that of African Americans, says an assistant professor at Goucher College.
“It will be problematic for Martin O’Malley to solidify the black vote if they perceive him or the tying in with zero-tolerance policy with policing that they view perhaps as unfair,” says Mileah Kromer, the director of Goucher’s Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center.
The Democratic primaries begin next February—meaning O’Malley still has time to hone his message.