Council vote for Norris could threaten civil liberties

May 03, 2000|By Gregory Kane

THE CITY COUNCIL votes Monday on whether to bestow the commissioner's job on acting Baltimore police Commissioner Ed Norris.

Let's keep this simple, shall we? Those council members who vote to confirm Norris will vote for fascism. Those who vote against him will show they're in the ever-shrinking cluster of Americans who still believe in civil liberties.

That may sound like too harsh an assessment of Norris -- who had a City Council confirmation hearing last night -- but we have to remind ourselves whence he comes: New York City, where he was deputy police commissioner. Should we hold that against him? You're dang skippy we should.

The New York attorney general's office recently released a report charging that the NYPD disproportionately stopped blacks and Hispanics to frisk them. One black suspect was arrested for every 9.5 blacks stopped. The figure for Hispanics was one suspect arrested for every 8.8 stops. Before some of you start feeling smug, you might consider that Caucasians fared better, but not by much. The data showed one white suspect arrested for every 7.9 stops.

Once we start letting violations of civil liberties run amok, the transgressions soon know no color line. New York Police Commissioner Howard Safir has dismissed the report as mere politics. But an even more scathing indictment of NYPD practices came from an organization with considerably less of an ideological ax to grind: the libertarian Cato Institute.

Timothy Lynch, director of the Washington, D.C.-based institute's Project on Criminal Justice, released his report at the end of March. Focusing on the fatal shooting of that wallet-carrying menace Amadou Diallo in February 1999 -- while Norris was still on the force -- Lynch concluded the West African immigrant's death was neither a "racist crime" nor a "fluke accident."

"It was," Lynch wrote, "rather, the worst-case scenario of a reckless, confrontational style of policing." That "style" was for members of the "elite" Street Crime Unit to descend on blacks and Hispanics in poor neighborhoods "with pistols drawn, all the while barking commands laced with vulgarities," wrote Lynch. The attorney general's office found in its study, covering January 1998 to March 1999, that 23 percent of the SCU stops lacked probable cause. And that's just the documented stops. Most stops weren't documented.

The conduct and comments of NYPD members, more so than any criticism from the attorney general or Lynch, give you a feel for the severity of the problem. Once the SCU was turned loose on poor black and Hispanic neighborhoods, some of its members distributed T-shirts with a quotation from Ernest Hemingway:

"Certainly there is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never really care for anything else thereafter."

It's bad enough that the SCU went on nocturnal Negro hunts. It's even worse some members enjoyed it so much they expressed the joy of it on a T-shirt. Baltimore City Council members, rather than rubber-stamp Mayor Martin O'Malley's choice for commissioner, should ask Norris if he knew of this and, if so, whether he vehemently opposed it when he found out about it. They might also ask Norris what he thought of the SCU motto, "We own the night," a slogan more fitting for the KGB or the Gestapo, not a police agency operating in a democracy.

Norris surely had to know what one anonymous officer told New York Times reporter David Kocieniewski for a December 1997 article. The officer was talking about the practice of "tossing" -- stopping and frisking -- suspects.

"There are guys who are willing to toss anyone who's walking with his hands in his pockets. We frisk 20, maybe 30 people a day. Are they all by the book? Of course not; it's safer and easier to just toss people."

If that low-level cop knew that, you can rest assured that Norris, as deputy commissioner, knew it too. Before making him Baltimore's next permanent police chief, City Council members had darn well better ask him if he approved of the "tossing" of innocent civilians or, if not, what he did to oppose it.

Norris' defenders cheerfully chirp that NYPD tactics helped reduce crime. Reducing crime by turning poor black and Hispanic neighborhoods into police states is not something to be proud of. It's something that should make us feel eternal shame.

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