Mayor finds support in crisis

Reducing homicides more important than Daniel, mayor says

Racial aspect under debate

White New Yorker is appointed acting police commissioner

April 01, 2000|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,and Peter Hermann SUN STAFF

Facing the first crisis of his 4-month-old administration, Mayor Martin O'Malley rallied political support yesterday as he defended himself over the abrupt departure of his police chief.

Ronald L. Daniel's resignation Thursday threatened to be racially divisive. It provoked criticism and skepticism among some African-Americans because the black commissioner was replaced by a white deputy with aggressive plans for law enforcement, Acting Commissioner Edward T. Norris.

Yesterday started with O'Malley critics on radio talk shows calling his selection of Daniel as commissioner a ruse on African-Americans. But in the end, many who had lauded the 26-year police veteran's selection four months ago were siding with O'Malley.

After many hours of urgent phone calls and meetings, the mayor appeared at a news conference with nine City Council members, mostly African-Americans, and leaders of the city's two police unions. The city's Senate delegation in Annapolis issued a joint statement of support; House delegation members expressed mixed feelings about Norris.

"This has been the toughest decision that I have ever had to make and one that caused me a great degree of personal sadness," O'Malley said. But "I promised the people of this city that we will make it safer."

Daniel resigned after refusing to agree to a New York police consultants' 120-page plan to make the city safer and reform the police department, now under its third commissioner in seven months.

Daniel met privately yesterday morning with his top-level commanders, where he told staff, "It was nice working with you. I appreciate the work you did. Please support the new commissioner."

Later, Daniel told a reporter that he had no input in the plan. "I can't support a plan that's not mine," he said, and declined to make any other comment.

O'Malley took steps yesterday to restore racial balance at the top of the department by appointing the highest-ranking African-American commander, Col. Barry Powell, as acting deputy commissioner in charge of operations.

Yet critics jumped on O'Malley -- who has enjoyed a popular start -- accusing him of deliberately setting Daniel up to fail in order to replace him with former New York Deputy Police Commissioner Edward F. Norris.

"It's all racial," said John Clinton, who owns a barbershop on Park Heights Avenue and is past president of the Pimlico Merchants Association. "It's all set up for the white boy to get the job."

O'Malley called the accusations "ludicrous," saying that it was Daniel who resigned.

"I was so insistent on this guy being my guy that I thought we could work through it," O'Malley said of Daniel. "Neither of us entered this collaborative effort thinking that it would fail."

Residents, neighborhood activists and political leaders began speculating on what O'Malley should do to repair the damage.

Critics threatened to challenge any attempt to make Norris permanent commissioner, raising concerns over recent shootings in New York, where three unarmed African-American men were shot over the past 18 months. Norris, who declined to comment and did not appear at the news conference, was director of operations for the New York department.

"I don't think it's a good idea," Constance Maddox, president of the Madison East End Improvement Association on the east side, said of Norris heading the department. "He's an outsider. It should be someone that knows Baltimore City and knows the people here."

O'Malley indicated that he would not conduct a nationwide search, saying Norris has the experience to run the department. O'Malley, however, would not say whether Norris will get the job permanently.

The goal, O'Malley said, has not changed: to bring down the city's homicide rate.

"When residents call 911, they don't say, `Make sure you send a white officer or a blue officer or a black officer,' " O'Malley said. "The lives lost in the city every year to gunfire are poor, predominantly black citizens of this city."

Daniel has been credited with leading visible improvements in poverty-stricken, drug-infested neighborhoods in his two-month tenure. In Pigtown, one of the 10 drug areas targeted by police, people say the Cross and Carroll street corner has been cleaned up considerably in the past six weeks.

"There has been a tremendous difference in our neighborhood," said Kim Lane, executive director of the Washington Village Pigtown Neighborhood Planning Council. "Whether it's due to Daniel or O'Malley, we don't know. But things are much better."

The city, however, begins the second quarter of the year failing to slow a murder pace that for a decade has rsulted in 300 deaths a year. O'Malley's council supporters said the need to reduce the number makes them support the mayor.

"People are going to take every opportunity to make this a racial issue, and it doesn't have to be," West Baltimore Councilwoman Catherine Pugh said. "We can't keep waking up to people dead in our streets."

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