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Baltimore tensions put Martin O'Malley in a tight spot

Since Monday’s riots, O’Malley’s zero-tolerance, tough-on-crime tactics when he led the city have come under fire from a diverse range of critics.

This week’s unrest in Baltimore over the death in police custody of Freddie Gray has added yet more fuel to a high-decibel national conversation about police treatment of young minorities. But it also has shined a spotlight on the policies pursued by a former mayor of the city, Martin O’Malley—and perhaps dealt a serious blow to O'Malley's already long-shot bid to outflank Hillary Clinton for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.

Since Monday’s riots, O’Malley’s zero-tolerance, tough-on-crime tactics when he led the city have come under fire from a diverse range of critics, who say that approach played a key role in creating the frayed relationship between the city’s police and the community they serve. 

As he tours key presidential nominating states to lay the groundwork for an expected run, the controversy may at the very least make it harder for O'Malley to tout his success in reducing Baltimore’s crime rate when he ran the city from 1999 to 2007.

RELATED: Rand Paul, Donald Trump assign blame for violence in Baltimore

"Baltimore went on to achieve the biggest reduction in crime of any major city in America," O’Malley said recently in Polk County, Iowa.

It could also fatally undercut his effort to portray himself as the progressive alternative to Clinton on domestic policy issues like tackling inequality—especially as he faces competition for that role from Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont socialist who announced a presidential run this week.

O’Malley’s highest-profile antagonist has been David Simon, the creator of "The Wire," the critically-acclaimed HBO drama about Baltimore's drug war. Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, charges that O’Malley’s no-holds-barred police tactics aimed to reduce crime by any means necessary in order to further the mayor’s political ambitions. 

“What happened under his watch as Baltimore’s mayor was that he wanted to be governor,” Simon told Bill Keller of the Marshall Project in an interview published Wednesday. “And at a certain point, with the crime rate high and with his promises of a reduced crime rate on the line, he put no faith in real policing.”

Instead, said Simon, O’Malley’s police force initiated a policy of mass arrests aimed at clearing the streets, which ultimately led to an ACLU lawsuit that alleged “a broad pattern of abuse.” (The city agreed to pay $870,000 to settle the suit in 2010).

After his tenure as mayor ended, O'Malley served two terms as Maryland's governor.  

Simon appears to have long had a dim view of O'Malley. The character of Tommy Carcetti on "The Wire," an ambitious and calculating local politician who goes on to become mayor, is said to have been based on O'Malley.

Steve Kearney, an O’Malley spokesperson, said “Baltimore’s policing strategy evolved over time and as violent crime was reduced, arrests also declined — a trend that has continued in the years since. Distrust between police and citizens is a challenge that all cities, including Baltimore, have long struggled with — and that continues today.”

And some community activists have defended O'Malley's approach as an appropriate response to the high crime rates of the era.

But Simon is hardly alone. Michael Steele, who was Maryland’s lieutenant governor while O’Malley ran Baltimore, has also weighed in.

“You couldn’t sit on your stoop, people were harassed,” Steele, a former top Republican official appearing on msnbc’s Morning Joe Tuesday, said of O’Malley’s tenure as mayor. “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.” 

Carl Stokes, a Baltimore city councilman, said that under O’Malley, the police actively pulled back on building ties to the community. 

RELATED: Baltimore councilman criticizes broken 'bond' between police, youth

“They ended their relationship with the young people in the city,” Stokes told msnbc’s Thomas Roberts. “They stopped the athletic leagues, they stopped the mentoring, the stopped the computer labs. We need to re-engage our police officers with our community, with our young people so that they see the police as friends and mentors as opposed to occupied forces.”

Matthew Crenson, a professor emeritus of political science at Johns Hopkins University, said the scrutiny of O’Malley’s police tactics is a “legitimate critique.” 

“There’s a lot going on here that isn’t O’Malley’s fault,” Crenson said, noting the deep-rooted problems that afflict many of the city’s young minorities, like a lack of education and economic opportunities. 

But Crenson said that under O’Malley, police vastly increased the number of arrests of young black men for misdemeanors like drinking or urinating in public, often throwing them in detention centers alongside hardened, violent criminals. Even though those policies were discontinued by O’Malley’s successor, Sheila Dixon, who took office in 2007, Crenson said they left a permanent scar.

“People who were harassed by police when they were teenagers, they're now adults,” said Crenson, who is at work on a book about Baltimore’s political history. “This is something that has a lasting effect, and its impact is to create very hostile relations between police and communities.”

In an op-ed published Thursday in the Huffington Post, O’Malley didn’t directly address the criticisms, but staked out a more dovish position on police tactics— “public trust is essential to public safety,” he wrote--and called for police body cameras. O’Malley also sought to frame the issue more broadly, inveighing against “an economic system that devalues human labor.”

“The anger that we have seen in Ferguson, in Cleveland, in Staten Island, in North Charleston, and in the flames of Baltimore is not just about policing,” O’Malley wrote.

O’Malley’s supporters note that as mayor, he also boosted funding for drug treatment, and created a civilian review board. And as governor, he decriminalized marijuana possession and repealed the death penalty.

And it’s true that the crime and murder rates did come down significantly during O’Malley’s tenure—though Crenson said they continued to do so under Dixon, and that studies show no-tolerance policing has had little impact on crime.

Ominously, anger over the policies of O'Malley's police force appears not to be confined to academics, talking heads—or HBO show-runners.

In the wake of this week's riots, O’Malley cut short a trip to Ireland where he was giving paid speeches in order to return to Baltimore. “I just wanted to be present,” he told reporters Tuesday near the burned-out CVS that had been looted the previous night. “There’s a lot of pain in our city right now.”

But, The Washington Post reported, he was followed by an angry man on a motorcycle. “F--- that, this is his fault,” the man shouted.

If that view starts to takes hold, O’Malley’s bid to give Hillary a run for her money could be under threat before it’s even gotten off the ground.