The killings continue regardless of race of chief

April 06, 2000|By Michael Olesker

EDWARD T. NORRIS, the new police commissioner of Baltimore, is built like an industrial fire hydrant. But is he built to last? In his first appearance Tuesday as the city's top cop, he spoke in a soft New York accent that sounded like the actor Alan Arkin. But, around him, you could hear all manner of shrieking.

Was that the sound of another parent crying over a slain child, or just Larry Young looking for a constituency? Norris, who will be 40 Monday, became a father for the first time last year. He mentioned this in the first three minutes of his news conference Tuesday.

Then he said, "I can't imagine a child being killed." But it happened 34 times last year in the city. Thirty-two of those children were black. Of the city's 310 homicide victims last year, said Norris, 275 were black.

Such figures have been depressingly consistent through the leadership of Thomas C. Frazier, who is white, and the previous commissioners Edward V. Woods and Edward J. Tilghman and Bishop L. Robinson, all black. Over this period, thousands of shootings occurred in the city. And not a soul firing a gun paused to consider the skin color of the police commissioner before pulling the trigger.

Were there racial considerations in Ron Daniel's departure, 57 days after he took the job he said he had wanted for a quarter-century? If there are, he should tell us. If there were racial pressures of any kind, he should say so. Daniel not only walked out on the job, he deserted a city restless to stop being afraid of itself. Worse, by explaining nothing, he left some people to invent conspiracy theories.

Larry Young, for example. Breathless, sputtering, voice spanning spectacular octaves over his radio microphone, the former-legislator-turned-talk-show-host This line is longer than measure/can't be broken constructed the Daniel-to-Norris handoff entirely along racial lines.

Of course, he hadn't talked to Daniel. Nor had he talked to Norris. Nor had he read the new police manifesto for cutting crime, which says nothing about zero tolerance and makes no suggestion of violating civil liberties or of racial profiling.

When he wasn't on the radio, wondering how "we went to sleep with a black commissioner and woke up with a white commissioner" -- and, though he didn't mention it, awoke with the same appalling crime rate -- Young was trumpeting the meeting at Unity United Methodist Church in West Baltimore, where he declared, "This is our town."

Whose town would that be, exactly? Did he mean "our" part of town where most of the killing and bleeding occurs while all manner of leadership, police and political, has seemed utterly incapable of stopping it? Or should we assume "our" town is a euphemism for another kind of racial dividing?

"No," Young said yesterday, "I'm just saying we have good people right here in Baltimore. Why go to New York? I'd feel the same if he was from Delaware. We're dealing with a problem of perception here."

Which is more important, Young was asked, perception or 300 murders a year?

"Good question," he said. "We have to deal with the problem. But we have a majority that is in the minority."

He means a black majority with a minority of important jobs. Is he saying Norris' appointment by Mayor Martin O'Malley was simply about race?

"That has been the rule in the past," Young said. "That's why Kurt Schmoke appointed Tom Frazier. Because Schmoke still thought he could become governor. But he was wrong for bringing in Frazier, and this mayor is wrong for bringing in this man."

This kind of thinking is troubling on any number of levels: the sheer cynicism about politics and race; the belief that race transcends any individual's qualifications; and, from Young's side of it, the apparent assumption that any white appointee has bad intentions toward blacks.

"I like O'Malley," Young said, not quite answering this line of thought. "I think he has a good heart. But it does matter if our community gets its fair share. Perception does matter."

So does perception of crime. The city of Baltimore has stumbled where so much of urban America has been reborn in the current economic good times. In New York and Boston, they've had astonishing drops in crime.

"Everybody talks about New York," Edward Norris said at his news conference. "If Baltimore were the size of New York, we'd have 3,500 homicides a year."

But New York has also had some of the most appalling high-profile cases of police brutality. Is this what Norris brings to Baltimore?

"Police officers come from society, from the general population," Norris said. "They are usually hard-working and honest. But some of them are criminals. The New York cases are tragedies, but they weren't by design."

O'Malley has been smart enough not to ignore the racial accusations aired since Ron Daniel walked away. Two days ago, he went on the air with Larry Young, who told him that "callers have been mentioning" racial implications -- as though Young were a bystander.

By now, Young's tone was gentle and reflective. He referred to concerns -- that a high-profile black leader, Ron Daniel, was being replaced by the white Norris -- as "the dream deferred."

That was a reference to Martin Luther King Jr., assassinated 32 years ago this week.

Point of reference: King wouldn't have talked about "our town." His dream was about putting aside racial labels. And he would have shuddered at the thought of so many killings, no matter the skin color of the deceased, or of the latest police commissioner.

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