Baltimore's new chief gives police N.Y. accent

Norris adds touch of Big Apple jargon

July 03, 2000|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Pinstripes haven't been added to Baltimore police uniforms.


But there is no question that New York influences are encroaching on a police force steeped in local tradition.

Along with a police leader hired from New York come New York ideas about how crime is fought, the color of the uniforms and what kind of shields detectives wear. Even more noticeable, however, is the new vernacular.

We say ambo, they say bus. We say lockup, they say collar. The language of policing in Baltimore and New York seems as different as crabs and quiche. But both tongues are being spoken side by side as Commissioner Edward T. Norris introduces a New York flavor to the Baltimore Police Department.

Norris uses a distinctive New York term to describe criminal suspects - one that before now wasn't in the dictionary of Baltimore police speak.

"Some of our people are starting to use the word `perp,'" said Deputy Commissioner Bert Shirey, a veteran of three decades with the department.

Norris has had to get used to some Baltimore oddities as well. Here, a good officer is referred to by some as a "PO-lice." Cop is considered derogatory to some old-timers.

"In New York, cop is a real term of endearment," Norris said. "You are a `cop's cop.' Here, people say, `He's a real PO-lice.' I realize now it's a compliment."

Even as he puts his stamp on the department, Norris says he's respectful of its history. He's considering restoring the espantoon, a handcarved nightstick unique to Baltimore that another out-of-town commissioner had banished.

Earlier influences

Californian Thomas C. Frazier, the first outsider to head the department in 30 years, upset many with what he thought were innovative West Coast ideas. Among them was replacing the espantoon, which officers liked to twirl by its rawhide strap, with a plastic baton called a Koga stick.

Although Norris says he never heard the word "espantoon" until he arrived in Baltimore, he can now twirl one as if he were a native - which he happily demonstrated during an interview.

"Those Koga sticks look like stickball bats," he complained. Of the espantoon, he said, "I can't believe [Frazier] would take this tradition away. It is very unique to this city."

He likened getting rid of the espantoons to removing the traditional green lanterns that still hang outside every precinct house in New York, a distinctive reminder of the old days.

"Obviously, I operate a different way, and I think different methods of policing work," Norris said. "That's why they hired me. But I think there is a lot to be said for tradition. This is a proud police department with a long history. It seems kind of sad to take it away."

Yet in three months under Norris the department looks different. Uniforms for supervisors have gone from white to blue. Hats are mandatory. And like the cops in New York, detectives here are getting coveted gold shields.

"We've changed uniforms so many times that we're now waiting for blue-and-white pinstripes," joked Officer Gary McLhinney, the police union president, referring to the historic dress of the hated New York Yankees.

No pinstripes for the moment. "That's coming," Norris joked.

Changes come slowly

The language of policing may be harder to change. For the moment, New Yorkese is taking its place alongside Bawlamerese. Norris is not ready to speak like a local.

"I haven't heard the word `Hon' come out of his mouth yet," McLhinney remarked.

Consider the differences.

An easy to solve murder in Baltimore is a "dunker." New York cops call them "grounders." A fugitive in Baltimore is "on the wing"; in New York, he's "in the wind." An arrest in Baltimore is a "lock-up"; in New York it's a "collar."

In Baltimore, an unarmed mugging from behind is called a "yoking"; a high-profile murder is a "red ball"; a "mope" is someone just hanging around looking for trouble (there also is the act of committing "mopery"); the radio code 10-7, meaning "out of service," can be used for a broken car, a bathroom break or to relay that a shooting victim has died.

In New York, a small-time "perp" is a "skell" - a derogatory term used to describe the homeless or drug addicts, derived from skellum, a rascal or thief. An officer who needs an ambulance calls for a "bus"; and a cop returning to his station goes to "The House."

Got it?

A New York cop collars a perp, radios for a bus for the victim and returns to The House. A Baltimore PO-lice makes a lockup for a yoking and calls an ambo for the victim.

Given the impact of television police shows, some Baltimoreans may already be familiar with New York jargon.

Producers "pick up one cop's expression because it's colorful, and it's broadcast across the world, and people think that's the way all New Yorkers talk," said Neil Behan, who spent 31 years on the New York police force before retiring in 1977 and moving south to run the Baltimore County department for 16 years.

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