In debate on Norris, caller plays race card

May 06, 2000|By GREGORY KANE

THE UNIDENTIFIED caller described herself as a New Yorker who had moved to Baltimore. Taking exception to my Wednesday column, which suggested the city could do better than acting police Commissioner Ed Norris, the caller asked: "What about all the black drug dealers who are committing violent crimes in black neighborhoods?"

I love to take a train of thought to its logical conclusion. The question can inspire several answers, not the least of which are these:

What about all those white suburban drug users who drive into Baltimore and buy drugs from those black drug dealers and thus keep them in business and fuel the violence? And does anyone really think that the proposed crackdown on violent crime and open-air drug markets is going to result in more draconian sentences for them? It didn't happen in New York. There, the overzealous stopping and frisking of blacks and Hispanics in poor neighborhoods became so egregious that New York state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer said they violated even the guidelines the Supreme Court lay down in the 1968 ruling Terry vs. Ohio. The then-liberal court ruled that police had to have a "reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot," according to Spitzer. (It's worth noting that liberal U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas vehemently dissented from the ruling, and that conservative Justice Antonin Scalia has problems with it.)

Norris and his supporters suggest that black and Hispanic men were most frequently stopped because authorities put cops "where the crime was." Oh? So there are no longer any white drug users -- or dealers, for that matter -- in any white community in New York? On a scale of one to 10, how stupid do Norris and his supporters think Balti-morons are?

There's another answer to the caller's question. Is she seriously suggesting that because some blacks commit crime, all blacks should be in danger of losing their civil liberties? Most of those stopped in New York were innocent civilians minding their own business. Suggesting that innocent blacks pay for the sins of their brethren who commit crimes smacks too much of the thinking that led to Jim Crow and lynching.

That mentality is still with us, afflicting even some blacks on the Baltimore City Council. They've accepted, without question, Norris' "we put cops where the crime was" explanation. Come Monday, the council will do what it usually does: rubber-stamp the mayor's selection and confirm Norris as commissioner. (This is a punt-on-first-down body if ever there was one.) But those council members who can't stand up to the mayor should at least spare us idiotic comments.

At Tuesday's confirmation hearings, four black New York police officers came to testify about what a great guy Norris is. That's probably true. Some 99.99 percent of the folks who work in law enforcement are good people. The issue with Norris is one of policy and tactics. The man has not said he opposed policies of the New York Police Department that clearly violated the constitutional rights of some citizens. As police commissioner, he's sworn to uphold, not violate, the Constitution.

So what kind of questions did our city legislators lob at the four black officers? Fifth District Councilwoman Rikki Spector gushed about how pleased she was that they showed up. Third District Councilman John L. Cain -- who usually gets to the heart of matters -- asked if Norris was a racist or involved in brutality. Council President Sheila Dixon said some Norris opponents simply wanted a black police commissioner.

It's a curious accusation, coming from a woman who owes her lofty perch to those African-Americans who wanted a black city council president. But it's Norris' supporters, not his opponents, who've brought up the issue of race. By trotting out black New York officers to tell us what a fine fella Norris is, they've not only dragged race into the issue, they've insulted those Norris opponents who insist that this brouhaha is about a philosophy of policing, not race. Those critical of Norris now are pretty much the same folks who said early on in Ron Daniel's brief stewardship that they wanted no part of zero-tolerance police tactics.

What are the alternatives to tough policing, the caller and others want to know. One is a law -- the same one that has reduced crime in other states -- giving Marylanders the right to carry firearms. But that will never happen in this state, where liberal Democrats would rather rip the Bill of Rights to shreds than concede that common folks can be trusted with a dangerous thing like liberty.

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