Norris turns to leaders for aid

Business heads urged to back his strategy of aggressive policing

June 06, 2000|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris urged city business leaders to support his aggressive anti-crime plan yesterday, asking them not to back away when incidents involving officers arise.

"I don't care if you got the pope as police commissioner, you're going to have some bad police shootings; you're going to have some bad police incidents," Norris told a breakfast meeting of downtown business leaders and a handful of politicians.

In blunt, forceful talk, the former New York police commander gave a candid assessment of Baltimore's crime problem, the difficulty the department faces in dealing with it and the disputes that are inevitable.

"Bad things happen in this line of work," Norris told members of the Downtown Partnership, a business consortium, at the Omni Inner Harbor Hotel. "It's a dangerous business, done by people who interact with other people, and they're flawed.

"And that's when things happen," he said. "And when that happens, we all can't say, `That's it, we don't want this; it's exactly what we were afraid of.' We have got to be really strong in our resolve to get this done."

The commissioner also used the opportunity to press for support for raises for officers - who are among the state's lowest paid - and money for his recruitment drive. He is trying to recruit an additional 300 officers to boost the 3,200-member force.

Norris said that Baltimore residents have no need to fear that his strategies will lead to increased brutality and spark the type of controversial incidents here that led to allegations of abuse in New York, where he was the chief architect of a crime-reduction plan.

The commissioner urged the business leaders to "hold us accountable and watch what we do." But, he added, "you have to be very honest in your assessment of what is going on."

Norris appeared to win over one of his toughest critics, state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, who urged the City Council to oppose Norris' nomination last month.

The West Baltimore Democrat, whose district includes some of the most violent and drug-prone neighborhoods, pledged his support to the new commissioner, saying he wants to work with Norris "to achieve his goals of removing the open air drug markets."

He told the commissioner that he comes from a family who for four generations championed civil rights, and he said in an interview that he remains concerned about importing New York-style policing.

"I'm not going to abandon one effort to accomplish the other," Mitchell said.

In his speech, Norris said that over five years, crime in New York dropped about 70 percent and homicides reached 30-year lows, from more than 2,400 to under 700, one of the lowest per-capita murder rates in the country.

Yet several police shootings of unarmed civilians, including that of Amadou Diallo, who died in a hail of 41 police bullets, and the case of Abner Louima, who was brutalized by officers with a broomstick in a precinct house, have sparked calls for reform.

In previous interviews, Norris labeled the Diallo shooting a bad use of police force. But he maintains that the persistent controversy overshadowed the fact that crime fell and police shootings dropped from 41 in 1990 to 11 in 1999, even though the size of the force increased by 12,000.

"Everything was going in the right direction, but you'd never know it by reading what you were reading," he said of New York's media coverage. "And what it causes the police to do is lay back"

He blamed much of the criticism on the politics and people "taking shots at the mayor through the Police Department."

"The same thing could happen here," he warned.

The speech was Norris' first to the influential business group that hires safety guides to help tourists and report crime to police, as well as manages a daily overtime police shift of off-duty officers who are paid for by businesses to increase patrols on downtown streets.

MicheleL. Whelley, the interim president of the Downtown Partnership, called the downtown area the "safest community in the city."

She said that downtown crime has dropped 42 percent in the past year, but "all that doesn't matter" when crime continues unabated in other parts of the city.

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