Commissioner Norris has no time to waste

Confirmation: As New Yorker takes over, he must decrease crime without provoking confrontation.

May 09, 2000

NOW THAT Edward T. Norris has been confirmed as Baltimore's new police commissioner, he has no time to waste.

Mr. Norris must quickly demonstrate that Baltimore's lethal spiral of violence can be halted without breaching civil liberties. And he has to show that tougher policing methods can be combined with fairness and diplomacy.

This will not be an easy task. As the City Council's confirmation hearings showed, many people are suspicious of the 39-year-old Mr. Norris just because of his background as a New York City deputy commissioner. By deeds and words, he has to allay fears that he will transplant strategies here that were effective in his hometown but led to police killings of innocent people and dangerous confrontations with neighborhoods.

Mr. Norris' race - he is white - is another complication in this city where many controversies tend to acquire a racial dimension. The election last year of a white mayor has increased sensitivities among African-Americans that the majority population's power is being steadily eroded.

The potential for racial antagonism is increased by the fact that close to 60 percent of the police force - and 74 percent of ranking officers - are also white and often do not live in the neighborhoods they patrol or even in the city.

Several mayors and police commissioners have tried to rectify this glaring imbalance and failed. Mayor Martin O'Malley and Mr. Norris must find new ways to strive for parity.

They should also step up efforts to win cooperation of citizens who in the past have not trusted the police. The best way for officers to win his support is through action.

Baltimoreans will aid the police if they know their complaints about crimes and nuisances are taken seriously and produce results. Conversely, callous disregard for obvious problems feeds the perception that members of the police force do not care - or are on the take.

Mayor O'Malley owes his election to his pledge that he will make Baltimore a less violent city. So far, he has not delivered. In fact, homicides this year have soared to record-breaking numbers.

Mr. Norris hopes to stem this perilous tide by applying technological innovations to crime-fighting. Above all, he is a believer in rapid-response policing that is driven by computer mapping of criminal activity.

In his daunting mission, he deserves Baltimoreans' support.

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