Deputy police chief hits the street

Norris promises `a different city'

March 05, 2000|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Having taken his first official tour of city streets, the new hard-edged deputy police commissioner from New York says he's shocked at the "arrogance" of drug dealers and the level of violence in Baltimore.

"I am a little amazed [drug dealers] are blatant and arrogant to think they can do this in the open," Edward T. Norris said in his first interview with The Sun since arriving in Baltimore in January.

Norris, who officially began Wednesday to oversee department operations after serving in a similar post in New York City for 3 1/2 years, reiterated Mayor Martin O'Malley's vow to make city streets safer by summer.

It is a pledge Norris takes seriously; his reputation, and possibly his career, rest in the Police Department's ability to slash the number of homicides and halt the drug epidemic. But change will come, he said, even if he has to do it himself.

Norris, 40, took his strong New York accent to city neighborhoods last week -- replacing academic crime theories with rough-and-tumble street patrol -- and even chased drug suspects with the ambition of a rookie officer.

"You cannot surrender and throw your hands up," he said of the city's crime problems.

Norris, who said he has been given "complete freedom" to oversee and implement a new crime-fighting strategy, said "noticeable" decreases in crime and violence should occur within three months.

"It is going to be a different city in a few years," he said. "I am sure of it. It is going to change."

The deputy commissioner did not offer specifics on his and Police Commissioner Ronald L. Daniel's crime-fighting strategy, but he said a major component is the continuing decentralization of investigative units.

All investigative units -- excluding homicide -- are being moved from police headquarters downtown to each of the nine districts.

That places detectives back on the street, where they can interact with informants and residents, similar to an officer walking the beat, Norris said.

Although the words "zero tolerance" was featured in a banner that hung over his New York career, Norris distanced himself from the phrase describing a policy in which police target minor infractions to discourage more serious crime. Still, he backs the concept.

Established by criminologist Jack Maple, Norris' mentor, the strategy was successfully implemented in New York City -- where Norris rose from a patrol officer in midtown Manhattan in 1980 to one of the department's top commanders. The city's homicide total dropped from 2,245 in 1990 to 667 last year.

"I don't think it is radical to arrest people selling drugs on the street," he said. "I think [residents] are going to see a lot more police activity of all kinds."

Norris also criticized policies supported by former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who once urged police to focus on drug dealers instead of users. "You go after drugs from the top down, and I don't know how you ever let that go," Norris said.

Daniel said Norris "asks a lot of questions" of veteran police officers, because he is intrigued that drugs are so entrenched in Baltimore. It is estimated that one in eight adults in Baltimore is addicted to drugs.

"I can see how he is surprised," Daniel said. "You just cannot go into New York and see 20 or 30 people gathered around waiting to buy drugs."

Known for being probing and slightly testy, Norris becomes frustrated when district commanders or officers do not know how their neighborhood's drug traffic and related crimes fit into citywide patterns, police officials say.

"We have learned, you better be prepared," said one police official.

Norris took his anti-drug message to East Baltimore on Friday. While patrolling near the 1600 block of E. Biddle St., Norris and his driver witnessed three men in a suspected drug deal. He emerged from his car and ordered the men to stop, but the three fled in different directions.

Norris chased one suspect about two blocks to the 1600 block of E. Chase St., where he tackled the suspect, called for backup and then made him spit out three capsules of suspected heroin.

"It was physical," he said, noting it was his first collar in about two years.

Three Eastern District officers responded and arrested Charles Dingle, 47, of the 700 block of Whirton Court, and charged him with possession of heroin.

Minutes later, Norris, dressed in his neatly pressed uniform, witnessed another suspected drug deal at the corner of Milton Avenue and Biddle Street.

Once again, Norris gave chase. Aided by several officers, Norris caught the suspect in a nearby alley. No arrest was made because, he said, the suspect had no drugs.

As a testament to the challenge he faces, a man was shot and killed in the 1600 block of Normal Ave. in Northeast Baltimore while Norris was demonstrating his patrol skills.

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