Norris defends strategy for fighting city crime

Acting chief appears before City Council to address concerns

April 12, 2000|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

For the first time since coming to Baltimore in December, acting Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris strongly defended the city's new crime-fighting strategy last night, pledging to implement training programs for officers to alleviate citizen fears of police abuse.

A standing-room-only crowd of about 250 people filled the City Council chambers as council members peppered Norris with questions ranging from whether he attended church to what he felt about the police shootings of unarmed citizens in New York City.

Norris, 40, has been tapped by Mayor Martin O'Malley to become the city's third police commissioner in seven months and revamp the department.

Last night, the 20-year New York police veteran told council members that he found published reports of racial tensions surrounding his nomination "very insulting."

The former New York deputy commissioner said his nomination should not be tainted by the high-profile police shooting cases in New York, which he called "tragic and unfortunate."

"It's unfortunate that I'm being judged over what's happening in that city," Norris said. "It's the safest city in the country right now, and the reason we are here is to save lives."

While the debate rages over his nomination, Norris said, "kids are still being killed here."

His appearance was requested in a resolution introduced Monday by Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. of West Baltimore and unanimously approved by the council. Norris was asked to address black Baltimoreans' concerns about the crime-fighting plan.

Opponents of the "zero-tolerance" strategy claim it will lead to increases in targeting African-Americans for police stops.

Attempting to alleviate concerns, Norris said his plan calls for department-wide training on tactics, cultural sensitivity and proper search-and-seizure procedures. The department will appoint integrity control officers and conduct undercover investigations of police corruption, Norris said.

"We're speaking the same language," Norris told the council. "We want to increase the training to prevent these situations. We need to take this city back from the drug dealers but we have to do it in a professional manner."

Norris became acting police commissioner last week after the abrupt resignation of O'Malley's first choice, Ronald L. Daniel. Daniel stepped down after 57 days, saying he lost control of the department to New York police consultants hired by O'Malley.

Last night, Norris described a police department in chaos. The lack of leadership and direction of 3,188 sworn officers has left residents with inadequate protection, he said.

Norris said he was most outraged that 34 children were killed in Baltimore last year.

"We have to make the city safe," he said. "You can't have children being slaughtered in the streets. We can't live like this."

African-American members asked questions about the impact the crime-fighting plan will have on black residents. Mitchell noted a report issued 32 years ago by the National Advisory Commission On Civil Disobedience warning that aggressive policing in poor, minority neighborhoods would lead to civil unrest.

"I want to make sure that we don't repeat the past of the 1960s when riots tore this city apart," Mitchell said.

Improving police efficiency while instituting training programs will help prevent any tensions, Norris said.

Despite widespread publicity over three unarmed African-Americans being shot in New York in the past 13 months, police-involved shootings in that city have dropped from 41 to 11 in the last nine years, Norris said.

He told the council how he rose quickly through the ranks of the New York department by instituting change. Under his direction, he said, the department doubled the number of fugitives captured from 6,000 to 12,000; a cold-case squad he initiated solved 27 homicides; and he was named Investigator of the Year in the division that investigated police corruption in 1992.

Norris pledged to duplicate the same success in Baltimore while respecting the concerns of the African-American community.

"You can cut crime by half or two-thirds," Norris said. "But if you don't have a professionally trained police agency that people trust, you won't be successful."

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