All quieter on the eastern front

Norris claims gains in violent district with influx of officers

September 25, 2000|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

It's been a little more than a month since Baltimore's police commissioner sent a small army of officers to reclaim the city's violent east side.

Progress can be measured many ways. Cruising down Barclay Street, Edward T. Norris noted, "The streets are quiet and people are sitting outside. That was not the case a month ago."

The numbers back him up. From Aug. 22 through Sept. 21 last year, six people were killed and 18 were wounded by gunfire in the Eastern District. The same four-week period this year: seven shootings and zero homicides.

Drug dealers still ply their trade on the corners. The police radio still crackles with reports of armed men. But officials say a 10 percent increase in crime during the first half of this year has been transformed into a 34 percent drop.

"We haven't broken a sweat yet," Norris told a group of extra duty officers Thursday evening. "This is nothing. We're just beginning."

Department commanders sent 120 officers - a nearly 50 percent increase in force - to the Eastern District because it consistently led the city in violence and 911 emergency calls.

Officers were pulled from every part of the city and reassigned indefinitely. They were given strict orders to aggressively target people involved in the drug trade and restore order.

Such tactics had been used by previous commissioners and were often dismissed as desperate attempts to lower year-end crime statistics. Critics said officers in the past were given little direction, and the initiatives became a free-for-all.

Before the latest deployment, Lucille Gorham, president of the Middle East Community Organization, said she saw plenty of police officers, but she questioned how they worked.

Gorham, who oversees neighborhoods around Johns Hopkins Hospital, complained that officers often drove by suspected drug dealers and did not get out of their cars much. A month later, she said violence is noticeably down, but "they're still selling drugs on the corners. They're moving them from one block to the next."

But Gorham acknowledged, "It's going to take a lot to clean this up."

`Very impressive numbers'

Norris and his operations commander, Deputy Commissioner Barry W. Powell, have vowed not to repeat past failures.

Officers are deployed according to crime, and to spots where intelligence reveals potential trouble-makers.

The 120 officers have made 960 arrests in a month, 742 of them drug-related. "Very impressive numbers," Norris told some of his troops during the roll call meeting.

Fewer killings on the east side help the whole city. A few months ago, the pace of killings was 25 ahead of last year's, the 10th consecutive year with more than 300 homicides. The pace has now slowed to 13 above last year. The count stands at 207.

The commissioner and Powell praised the officers' efforts but also warned against becoming too comfortable with their initial progress.

"This is the one chance you are going to have to show people you can make a difference," Norris told them. "If we don't, people will say it is the same old, same old, and it's not going to get any better."

Norris told the officers they are being closely watched - that the next group of detectives will most likely come from the Eastern District contingent.

The commissioner has said he wants to add 500 officers to the 3,200-member force to create a roving squad that can be quickly deployed to hot spots around the city.

He is under pressure from City Hall and a campaign pledge by Mayor Martin O'Malley to reduce the city's homicide rate from more than 300 a year to 175 by 2002.

Some officers have privately grumbled at the east side deployment and noted their displeasure with the new assignment. Norris told the officers that he only wants people in the unit who are eager to be there.

Powell was more blunt: "If you don't want to work this thing, you don't want to be a police."

Commissioner on patrol

Norris then climbed into a marked patrol car and began a tour of East Baltimore. He doesn't just inspect his troops. He jumps into action. He has slapped the cuffs on six suspects since he took over in April.

About 7 p.m., his driver, Sgt. Tony Barksdale, sped to the I Can Inc. shelter in the 2200 block of Greenmount Ave., where a man was reported to be armed with a gun.

Norris rushed up an alley with other officers and was among the first to confront a potential suspect, who said he got into an argument with a man inside the shelter.

"He started with me," the man told the city's top officer. "I told him not to put his hands on me. I told him not to touch me." No gun was found.

The streets were quiet, but pockets of potential trouble were evident. Barksdale pulled up to several corners to clear them of young men, and noted a large gathering and said, "They aren't waiting for a bus, they want to get hit" with drug sales.

During his two-hour tour, Norris went to a hit-and-run car accident in which a 12-year-old girl was critically injured and got involved in a fender-bender himself when his cruiser was rear-ended by a sedan.

The commissioner got the best compliment of the night from the sedan's driver, Earl Conaway, who perhaps was pleading for leniency as much as offering his support for the new police administration.

"You're doing a good job," he hollered as Norris got into his car and was driven away.

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