Norris gets OK to command city police

Council vote extends unanimous approval after heavy lobbying

May 09, 2000|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore City Council unanimously approved Edward T. Norris as Baltimore's police commissioner last night, clearing the way for Mayor Martin O'Malley to finally implement his crime-fighting plan.

Norris, the 40-year-old former deputy police commissioner of New York, became Baltimore's third police leader in seven months, after gaining the support of all 19 council members, some of whom had challenged O'Malley's pick in a series of meetings in the past month.

The direct, blunt-talking Norris welcomed the council vote of confidence last night, saying he was eager to begin clearing Baltimore street corners of drug dealers engaged in an illicit trade estimated at $1 billion a year.

"I can't wait to really get down to work," Norris said. "We have a lot of work to do."

Norris, who was hired in December to serve as a deputy commissioner, will earn $137,000 annually under a two-year contract.

City Council President Sheila Dixon led the push to confirm Norris, saying that the beleaguered city needed to restore stability to a department demoralized by a revolving door of leadership and its inability to keep homicides to fewer than 300 a year.

"The citizens of Baltimore, when we ran last summer, spoke," Dixon said, referring to O'Malley's election last year on an anti-crime platform. "Crime is the most important issue."

Yet the blanket council endorsement came with a stern warning.

"No police department, under our watch, is going to target minorities," Dixon said before casting her vote for Norris. "Protecting our people from unjust treatment is critical."

Critics of Norris' nomination have expressed fear that the so-called "zero tolerance" crime-fighting strategy that he helped implement in New York during the 1990s will result in Baltimore civil rights abuses through increased stops and searches of law-abiding minority residents.

Opponents of Norris' nomination walked from the council chambers last night, dejected at the unanimous vote. One of the chief critics, state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, a West Baltimore Democrat, jumped on a City Hall elevator, saying only: "It was a done deal."

Del. Nathaniel T. Oaks, a West Baltimore Democrat, said he expected the council to confirm Norris but was disappointed that none of the council members stood up for city residents opposed to the nomination.

"It's a sad day and a real scourge that the vote was 19 to zip," Oaks said. "But maybe this is the city where Commissioner Norris can vindicate New York City."

To allay fears over the possible targeting of minorities by police, Northwest Baltimore Councilwoman Stephanie C. Rawlings introduced legislation last night that would require all traffic stops to be documented in written reports.

The council vote also served as a political rebound for O'Malley. The mayor's first police commissioner, Ronald L. Daniel, resigned in March, 57 days after his council confirmation.

Daniel stepped down after refusing to endorse a police plan drafted by New York police consultants hired by O'Malley. He expressed reservations that the Baltimore department lacked the resources necessary to implement the changes.

After Daniel's resignation, O'Malley immediately named Norris acting commissioner, an appointment that generated concern and criticism, mostly among African-Americans.

O'Malley last night lauded Norris, who over the last month attended close to a dozen meetings with city neighborhood groups, church leaders and politicians to explain his plans.

"I think the process made him stronger," O'Malley said at a celebration in his office after the council vote.

"He kept his composure and kept his cool even in the face of some pretty ugly attacks," the mayor said.

O'Malley's effort to get Norris confirmed resembled a full-blown political campaign, with the mayor sending out thousands of letters, at a cost of $3,500, to city seniors encouraging them to support Norris. The effort resulted in thousands of calls, letters and e-mails flooding council offices.

The mayor thanked his former council colleagues and praised Dixon for her leadership in supporting his nominee.

"She realized the importance of this issue, and that was critical," O'Malley said. She "had the guts to stand strong."

Baltimore, the nation's 16th-most-populous city, ranks first in robberies, second in homicides, third in assaults, fourth in burglaries and eighth in rapes. An estimated three-fourths of city murders have been blamed on the drug trade.

Upon his arrival, Norris expressed the most outrage that 34 of the city's deaths last year included children.

Norris has said Baltimore will be able to meet the mayor's pledge to cut city murders by 40 percent over the next two years by targeting, capturing and incarcerating the most violent criminals.

Cities that have employed the crime-fighting strategy, including New York, New Orleans and Philadelphia, have watched murders drop dramatically.

Opposition to Norris' appointment was rooted in his job as deputy chief of operations in New York, where undercover police officers have shot and killed three unarmed African-American residents in the past 14 months.

Two reports - one from the New York attorney general and another from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights - determined that the New York department stopped and searched minorities at a higher rate than whites.

After his confirmation last night, Norris repeated his promise to city residents that police will concentrate on criminals - not law-abiding citizens.

"They really have nothing to fear from the police," Norris said. "This is about making it a professional department."

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