Maj. Bessie R. Norris, a retired Baltimore police commander who was a trailblazer for women and blacks, died March 26 of Parkinson's disease at home in McBee, S.C. She was 65.
Major Norris, a former Northwest Baltimore resident who had lived in McBee since the early 1990s, joined the Baltimore Police Department in 1964.
During her career, Major Norris compiled a string of firsts: The first woman to be named a shift commander in a police district.
The first black woman to earn the rank of major.
The first female commander when she was promoted to major in 1982 and named commander of the Southwestern District.
The first woman in the department's history to head an all-male squad when she was promoted to sergeant in 1970 and named head of an eight-member narcotics unit.
In other assignments during her career, Major Norris worked undercover narcotics and was a member of the vice squad; a recruiter in the personnel division; a shift commander in the Northwestern District; and dean of students at the education and training division.
"She paved the way for the rest of us women. If it hadn't been for Major Norris, women wouldn't be as far along in the department as they are," said Col. Margaret W. Patten, head of the department's Research and Development Bureau and a 26-year veteran. "She was certainly a trailblazer."
Colonel Patten described Major Norris as "street-smart and honest," a person who "didn't mince words and always spoke her mind."
In 1985, Major Norris was arrested and charged with driving while intoxicated after her unmarked police car hit a 21-year-old man. She pleaded guilty to the charge and was placed on 18 months' probation. She retired in 1986.
Until moving to McBee in 1992, she taught law enforcement courses.
The former Bessie Rodgers was born and raised in McBee, where she graduated from high school. In Baltimore, she graduated from the Cortez-Peters Business School and, in 1976, Coppin State College.
She was married for many years to Leslie Norris, who is deceased.
Services will be held today in McBee.
She is survived by a daughter, Denise Norris of Baltimore; two brothers, William H. Rodgers and James W. Rodgers, both of Baltimore; four sisters, Ella Watson of Baltimore, and Florence Griffin, Eliza A. Reid and Mary Blue, all of McBee; and two granddaughters.
Sun staff writer Peter Hermann contributed to this article.
Pub Date: 4/02/99