Mayor Brandon Scott’s latest television campaign ad on Baltimore’s mayoral race makes two assertions about his opponent former Mayor Sheila Dixon’s record on crime that are deserving of scrutiny.

According to polls, Scott, who is seeking a second term, has opened a lead over Dixon, his chief competition in the Democratic primary that begins with early voting beginning May 2 and Primary Day on May 14.

Arrests higher under Dixon but went down

The first claim is that under Dixon, the city experienced “mass arrests.” To back up the assertion, Scott’s ad cites 81,000 arrests made in 2007.

That was Dixon’s first year, and the high water mark for arrests during her tenure. It was under Dixon’s tenure that police formally denounced zero tolerance policing and said they were embracing a more targeted approach, though arrests at that time were far higher than they are today.

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In 2004, under then-Mayor Martin O’Malley, city police reached more than 100,000 arrests, and the number has tumbled each year since under each successive mayor and police commissioner.

And that includes during Dixon’s tenure. According to annual data submitted by Baltimore Police to the Maryland State Police, which forwards the data to the FBI, city cops made 82,529 arrests in 2007, 78,511 arrests in 2008, and 75,194 arrests in 2009. Dixon stepped down in February of 2010.

From her first full year to her last full year, the number of arrests declined 9%. And the arrests in her final year were down 16.7% from O’Malley’s last year.

The number of arrests continued on a steady annual decline, with the most pronounced drop occurring in 2015 after small amounts of cannabis were decriminalized.

Unofficial data showed police made about 14,100 arrests in 2023 under Scott — a small rise from the year prior and the first time annual arrests have increased in two decades. Notably, the city’s population has also declined during this time, by about 70,000 people.

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Homicide claim lacks context

The ad also said that amid those mass arrests, the number of homicides went up. That is true, but lacks context.

During Dixon’s first year, with the number of homicides headed toward 300 victims for the year, she installed a new police commissioner in Frederick H. Bealefeld III, and the city ended the year with 282 killings. The next year, the number plunged to 234 victims — a 17% drop that at the time was hailed as a remarkable turnaround.

In 2009, Dixon’s last year, the number of homicide victims did go up, to 240 — an increase of six victims.

Over the next two years, the decline continued, with the city experiencing 223 homicides in 2010 and 197 in 2011 — the only time in 45 years the city has seen fewer than 200 homicide victims in a year.

The investigation into the roots of the Gun Trace Task Force corruption scandal examined the department’s history through this period, concluding that “Bealefeld and his team achieved undeniable and remarkable results through the implementation of Dixon’s crime plan, which was subsequently inherited and reaffirmed by [successor Stephanie] Rawlings-Blake.”

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But the same report outlined unconstitutional arrests and abuses being committed by officers during Dixon’s term, as well as a failure by the department to effectively curb them.

“Unfortunately, the success on the crimefighting front was not matched by improvements in BPD’s accountability system despite occasional efforts to address its weaknesses,” the report concluded.

The Scott campaign ad says that Dixon doesn’t deserve a “second chance” based on her record. But if that’s the case, Scott did bestow a second chance on Dixon’s handpicked deputy police commissioner, Anthony Barksdale, who directed the agency’s operations during Dixon’s administration. He currently serves as Scott’s deputy mayor for public safety.

When reached for comment, Dixon’s campaign accuses Scott of “telling blatant lies” while the mayor’s campaign says that they are talking about “philosophies and approaches.”

Justin Fenton is an investigative reporter for the Baltimore Banner. He previously spent 17 years at the Baltimore Sun, covering the criminal justice system. His book, "We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops and Corruption," was released by Random House in 2021 and became an HBO miniseries.

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