Less common than it used to be.

Photographer: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

David Simon Is Wrong About Baltimore Arrests

Francis Barry writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was director of public affairs and chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. He is the author of “The Scandal of Reform: The Grand Failures of New York City’s Political Crusaders and the Death of Nonpartisanship.”
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One the most talked-about commentaries on why Baltimore erupted in riots may also be the most misleading.

David Simon, creator of “The Wire,” gave an interview recently laying blame for Baltimore’s recent upheaval at the feet of Martin O'Malley, the city’s former mayor and now a Democratic presidential hopeful. Simon charged O’Malley with initiating a policy of indiscriminate “mass arrests” for nonexistent low-level offenses, where officers learned to “roam the city, jack everyone up, and call for the wagon.”  This breakdown in good police work and erosion of rights, according to Simon, contributed to Freddie Gray's death and fueled the anger that boiled over into riots.

Simon worked for years as a Baltimore Sun police beat reporter, so his allegations carry an air of streetwise authority. “If you think I’m exaggerating,” he said, “look it up.”  So I did. According to FBI data, Simon is not only taking some dramatic license; he's leaving out important parts of the story.

Arrests did indeed increase under O’Malley, which isn't surprising: He ran for mayor in 1999 promising a get-tough approach to crime in one of America’s most dangerous cities. After he was elected, crime fell, and total arrests went up -- from 89,000 in 1998 to a peak of 114,000 in 2003. Whether a 28 percent increase warrants Simon’s colorful characterization is debatable, but let’s grant him the point: many more arrests were made.

But Simon didn’t mention something else: By the time O’Malley left office in 2007, arrests had returned to their 1998 levels.

And arrests have kept falling since. In 2012, Baltimore police made 38 percent fewer arrests than in 1998. If the riot was fueled by anger not only over police brutality but also police arrests for low-level crimes, as Simon seems to suggest, it's a good thing the rioters were too young to light a match or loot a store in 1998 or 2003.

One could argue that arrests haven’t fallen fast enough, since arrest numbers haven't decreased as quickly as crime levels.  One could also point out that Baltimore’s arrest rate is more than twice the national average. But you can't view arrest rates in a vacuum. Baltimore's violent crime rate is nearly four times the national average, and only four large cities -- Detroit, New Orleans, Newark, and St. Louis -- have higher murder rates.  For all its progress, Baltimore remains a dangerous city.

Nevertheless, Baltimore has had success in reducing both crime and arrests.  And in that regard, the city reflects a national trend.

Adjusted for population growth, U.S. arrests have fallen by one-third from their 1995 peak, which roughly corresponds to the drop in property crime (38 percent) and violent crime (43 percent). Even the rate of drug arrests, which climbed steadily from 1991-2006, has now fallen below 1995 levels. 

Last year, for the first time since 1980, the federal prison population declined. More should be done to reduce the number of non-violent drug offenders who are incarcerated, but the explosion in the prison population has far more to do with legislating felony prison terms that are too long than making arrests for low-level quality of life crimes.

The national decline in arrests runs counter to the idea that the America has become increasingly over-policed, particularly in poor minority communities. Few writers understand Baltimore’s mean streets as well as David Simon. But as the political debate over policing continues, it’s important to separate fact from fiction.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Barry at fbarry5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net