Norris' selection raises profile for N.Y.-style crime-fighting methods

Zero tolerance strategy proposed for police generates fear for rights

April 02, 2000|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

The era of feel-good policing is over in Baltimore.

Any doubt about that ended Friday when former New York police officer Edward T. Norris was named acting commissioner of the city's police force after the abrupt resignation of Ronald L. Daniel.

As a deputy commissioner hired by Daniel, Norris is a driving force behind a new law and order regime being modeled on crime-fighting strategies of the New York Police Department.

It's a radical departure from the social policies of Daniel's predecessor, Thomas C. Frazier, whose force promoted itself as the only gang in town that could save a child, run a recreation center and get a drug addict into treatment.

"Programs are for peacetime," said one of Norris' aides, Col. Bert L. Shirey. In the war on the streets, officers arrest people. Crime goes down. Social order follows.

"There's a crisis going on here," Norris said recently on WJHU's "The Marc Steiner Show." "The mayor won the election with a zero tolerance program. That tells me a lot of people are tired of having people standing in their neighborhood selling drugs openly."

Norris did not respond to requests for interviews over the past three weeks.

While it's unclear whether Mayor Martin O'Malley will make Norris his next commissioner, the sudden change in command has inflamed debate over whether police tactics that helped New York drastically reduce its crime rate should be used in Baltimore.

African-Americans in particular fear police will unjustly harass -- or even assault -- honest citizens in the name of zero tolerance. Some residents are worried that Norris, a white New Yorker, will become the permanent leader.

Talk show host Larry Young took to the airwaves Friday morning and told residents waking up to the news that they had gone to bed "believing you had a black police commissioner" and that the mayor "understood the base of this city."

Young urged his listeners to speak out: "If you sit silent and say nothing, then you are just as much part of the problem as the man making the decisions. Mr. Mayor, please don't take us down this road."

Daniel was appointed by O'Malley to reform a department unable to tame the streets, but he chafed under O'Malley's constant oversight and balked at accepting many of the reform plans being drafted by two high-priced consultants brought in by the mayor. Although the reform report hasn't been made public, there's no question policing will be much different than under Frazier, whom O'Malley disdained.

A different approach

Frazier described himself as a "social worker with a gun." Norris, a bull of a cop with a New York accent and attitude, just has a gun. As deputy commissioner, he expressed surprise that hard-core criminals in Baltimore thumbed their noses at police.

"I come from a place where if a police car comes by, the drug dealers try to hide, and they scatter," Norris said during a radio station call-in show, after he arrested a man who would not budge from a corner stoop.

"I was a little upset when no one seemed to move."

Norris is regarded as an innovative strategist who helped engineer New York's sharp decline in crime and homicide and sped nearly to the top of the turbulent 40,000-member force at One Police Plaza in mid-town Manhattan.

Plucked from the ranks by a New York police leader who is now a crime consultant in Baltimore, Norris promoted a zero tolerance approach to criminals that has been praised for making the city safer, and blamed for condoning police abuse.

Zero tolerance, Norris said on the radio show, does not mean wholesale locking-up of litterers. It means targeted enforcement to attack specific problems in neighborhoods. If dealers use bicycles in one area to move drugs, then police will crack down on bicycle infractions there.

It worked in New York, where police started ticketing bicyclists going the wrong way on streets or using sidewalks. They confiscated 18 guns, Norris said of the crackdown, "and the shootings stopped."

He noted that the killing of a New York police officer, one of his friends, was solved after a routine arrest of "someone smoking a joint in a subway."

Yet several controversial policing shootings of unarmed civilians, including that of Amadou Diallo, who died in a hail of 41 police bullets, and the case of Abner Louima, who was brutalized by officers with a broomstick in a precinct house, have sparked calls for reform.

Clashes between angry protesters and police broke out last weekend during the funeral for Patrick M. Dorismond, an unarmed man shot to death in a confrontation with undercover officers trying to make a drug buy.

The New York attorney general has concluded that too many people are being stopped and frisked for no reason, and a U.S. Department of Justice inquiry is under way that could result in a federal monitor being appointed to oversee and revamp NYPD practices.

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