Wanted: less social work, more law enforcement

'I'd like for us to be the police again,' says commissioner

April 20, 2000|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

"Police leaders have a sacred duty. We need to make sure police officers have the training they need to stay confident and the supervision they need to stay straight -- so that they protect the innocent while capturing the guilty using nothing more than necessary force."

-- Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris' mission statement

Baltimore's new police commissioner is trying to become a household name in this city of neighborhoods, conducting an all-out public relations campaign to sell his crime plan -- and himself -- to residents yearning to be safe.

People initially have been reluctant to embrace this tough-looking New Yorker named Edward T. Norris, worried he will import his former city's aggressive policing methods blamed for racial profiling and sanctioning abuse.

Norris is direct, plain-spoken -- and well aware he has to prove himself to city residents. "I'd like for us to be the police again," Norris said in a wide-ranging interview with The Sun this week.

He tackled several sensitive subjects, from the tactics of former police commissioners to the shooting of an unarmed immigrant in New York. They're likely to come up at two community meetings next week and at his City Council confirmation hearing, scheduled for May 2.

Norris' plan is relatively simple: More officers. More computers. Stricter, targeted enforcement. Fewer social programs.

He took over from Ronald L. Daniel, a well-liked, home-grown veteran of 26 years who quit after 57 days, following spats with the mayor over how to best fight crime and implement a crime-fighting plan.

Initially brought in as deputy commissioner under Daniel, Norris ascended to the top job when Daniel departed. Although unease about Norris is ebbing as he ventures out in public, the resistance has been frustrating for the city's new top cop.

He wonders how anyone could question a strategy to reduce violence when so many people are dying on city streets.

Baltimore has recorded more than 300 homicides each year for a decade. Fourteen people have been killed in the past seven days, bringing the total this year to 92 -- 26 ahead of last year's pace.

The 16th-most-populous city in the nation ranks first in robberies, second in homicides, third in assaults, fourth in burglaries, eighth in rapes and 15th in auto thefts.

"I've had people say, `People know it's bad, so you don't have to talk about it all the time,'" Norris said. "I think that's incorrect. I think you should talk about it all the time, until it gets better."

Here are excerpts from the interview:

Residents are crying for crime to go down, but many also complain about being stopped by police. How do you strike the balance?

We have to do a lot of the pro-active policing stuff that we had been talking about, putting police where the crimes are occurring -- on the corners where there is violence, where they are selling drugs. We need to train the police to be disciplined.

A big help is having supervisors out on patrol. That prevents a lot of the problems.

And you've got to be open by talking to people. You have got to tell the public the truth. The truth is policing the streets is done by people, not by machines. [Police make mistakes. If they stop people and they don't come up with any contraband or weapons or drugs, it doesn't mean they are all improper stops.

People are worried about police enforcement of nuisance crimes, particularly the loitering statute, which many prosecutors and judges believe is unconstitutional. How are you going to address this and keep the corners clear?

If we need it, we are going to use it. If there is a corner or an area with a high level of violence, a spate of shootings, etc., and we need to enforce some of the minor regulations such as loitering, we are going to do so. We told [prosecutors], `Listen, we have a problem at such-and-such a corner. We are going to be out there this weekend enforcing a lot of low-level regulations.'

What surprised you most about this city when you first arrived?

The high level of violence and the open-air selling of drugs. You don't see this in other cities around the country.

I heard about it, that it was pretty bad before I got here. But when you see it for yourself, it's much different to see how bad some of the sections are.

Former Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier described himself as a social worker with a gun and spent much of the department's time and money developing police-sponsored programs. You are not a social worker?

I'm a police officer. And I'm very proud of that. Police do an awful lot to help the neighborhoods and society, but we're not social workers. I think it's very important for the public to recognize that. There are social workers in this city. There are other agencies that provide jobs and other services. We're the police.

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