N.Y.'s view of Norris: `smart' and `very cool'

May 09, 2000|By MICHAEL OLESKER

AT TWILIGHT in the Bronx, the ticket scalpers raced through the traffic on 161st Street outside Yankee Stadium. "Hey! Mistah!" they cried. They were twitchy, and sweaty, and in your face. Overhead, the El rumbled and moaned. But out of such shrill noise of this contentious borough, there remains one sound to drown out all others: Amadou Diallo.

He was an unarmed African immigrant here, and he reached for his wallet one night and was shot 19 times. It is 15 months since this happened, but police in the Bronx say it is still the name thrown in their faces when the pressure is on, still the symbol of what can go wrong in a city where so much else has gone right.

This city used to be a horror story, and now it is not. It used to be hostage to its criminal class, and now it is a delightful shopping mall with a mere touch, perhaps, of unfortunate brutality toward suspicious-looking people who tend to have dark skin. That is the message of its defensive mayor, and its defensive police -- and for weeks, it clung to Edward Norris.

He is the new police commissioner of Baltimore, who caught so much fallout from his time in New York until he was confirmed by the City Council yesterday evening.

The shooting of Diallo was the symbol of all concerns about Norris: Could such things happen in Baltimore? Are they the inevitable price any community must pay in an attempt to restore civility to neighborhoods under siege for the past generation?

In the weeks since Mayor Martin O'Malley tabbed him to replace the suddenly-departed Ron Daniel, it's been Norris' plight to try to calm community concerns that he condones police brutality, particularly toward blacks, and that New York's excesses will become Baltimore's.

"First of all, understand that this is a very good, very smart policeman," John Miller was saying the other day, echoing several other people here who knew Norris well. "I knew him from the time he was a sergeant. He's very straight-forward, no-nonsense. And he's smarter than most police commissioners."

Through most of Norris' rise through the NYPD ranks, to become deputy commissioner for operations, Miller was the department's public information officer. He's now a legal affairs reporter for ABC News, where his office overlooks a glitzy Manhattan that is a vision of New York as it wishes to imagine itself: rich, playful, cosmopolitan, with none of the nightmare edges of the Diallo case.

"When things hit the fan and there was confusion," Miller says, "Eddie had what doctors call a steady hand and a good bedside manner. When I saw him come into an emergency room or a squad room, or his unmarked car pulled up, I always thought, `OK, everything will come together now. He'll get everything straight.'

"When we had the Brooklyn Bridge massacre, you can't imagine the intense crime scene. The police commissioner and the mayor were over at Madison Square Garden for a cadet graduation. By the time we reached there to brief them, Eddie pulled out charts and maps and graphs, along with a time line of everything that had happened.

This is within an hour of the incident. And, as the days went on, his version of what happened was the most accurate. We pretty much had the case wrapped up in 24 hours."

In Baltimore meetings, Norris caught flak from a phrase used ill-advisedly in the last mayoral race -- zero tolerance -- since disowned by Martin O'Malley, Ron Daniel, and by Norris, but held onto by those fearing police abuses to come.

"Norris is not about zero tolerance," says Miller. "He believes policing by its very nature has to be tolerant. He's about smart policing, not get-tough policing. Seeing the conditions and responding to them. He's carrying this hump on his back from New York, but peel back through his senses and there's not a prejudiced bone in his body."

Barry Scheck, a New York commissioner of forensic science, the agency regulating crime laboratories for the NYPD, dealt with Norris on DNA evidence.

"I sue the Police Department all the time," says Scheck, whose previous resume includes testimony on behalf of O.J. Simpson. He mentions the lawsuits by way of saying he deplores the department's flaws.

But his experience with Norris, he says, "was very positive. He's a smart guy, he understands issues, he's responsive, he keeps his cool. I liked him."

The words were echoed in several telephone interviews -- with New York newspaper reporters who covered Norris, and with John Timony, now the police commissioner of Philadelphia.

"A very cool character," said Timony. "I was his supervisor. He's not a zero-tolerance kind of guy, he's a fair guy, and a sensitive guy, and he's able to get on top of a situation and steady it. You need a guy like that, because it translates through a whole department."

In a series of interviews, a tone arrives in all discussions of Baltimore: pity. Law enforcement people cannot believe the continuing bloodshed, especially in a time when crime continues to fall around the country.

"Norris," says John Miller, "knows his crime. When we went after the toughest stuff, the narcotics officers said, `Well, we managed to get rid of the open-air drug dealing, but they're inside now so it's tougher to make the arrests. One commander said, `It's hard for under-cover guys to work in there.

"And Norris' reaction was, `How hard do you think it is for the people who live in there?' His whole outlook was, `The people people who suffer the most are not the people on Park Avenue, they're the poor and needy.' That's on point for Baltimore, isn't it?"

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