Norris, not critics, can resolve 911 dispute

May 05, 2001|By Gregory Kane

SHEILA DIXON, the Baltimore City Council president, is of the opinion that Col. James Hawkins of the Baltimore Police Department should be demoted.

Odd, I thought there was only one police commissioner in this town, and that his name was Ed Norris.

But Dixon, in a Sun article yesterday by reporter Peter Hermann, is quoted as saying, "It was very demeaning, the way he projected his voice. People were pretty furious about it. It shows a sense of ignorance. ... He should be demoted."

Hawkins is the "he" who incurred Dixon's wrath. The "it" is a taped 911 recording of Hawkins posing as a citizen calling to report a car in the middle of a street. The vehicle was an unmarked police car that Lt. Regis Phelan had taken home to Carroll County. Believing Phelan had no authorization to take the car, Hawkins got some spare keys and went to Carroll County to retrieve it. Then he left it in a street and made his call, certain he had nabbed Phelan in the act of wrongdoing.

The problem was, Phelan had authorization, from Maj. John Bergbower, who has since announced his retirement. Hermann revealed all this when the story broke in January. But WBAL-TV played the 911 tape this week. The dispute has flared anew, with offended African-Americans joining the imbroglio.

Thus we have Dixon talking about the voice Hawkins used on the 911 tape as "demeaning." And we have Sgt. Rick Hite, president of the group of black city police officers known as the Vanguard Justice Society, telling Hermann, "We're not in support of anyone who misrepresents the African-American community or fails to understand the cultural issues we face as African-Americans. ... [Hawkins] had to know that there was a time in our history that this was the only way African-Americans were depicted. ... It was a poor choice of dialect."

Ragina Averella, the director of public affairs for the police department - who is really earning her money right about now - played the 911 tape for me. I didn't feel demeaned. I didn't feel that Hawkins had committed some great offense against black people. Instead, I sat in Averella's office and said to myself, "Damn, I know people that talk like that. Some of them are in my own family."

Norris should heed one more African-American voice before he decides what to do with Hawkins. That voice says that when he hears African-Americans talking about what is offensive to African-Americans, the good commissioner's guard should go up. Because African-Americans don't know what offends African-Americans. The fact that we even call ourselves African-Americans, when we once referred to ourselves as black and before that as Negroes and colored, shows that many of us aren't operating on all cylinders.

Besides, African-Americans/blacks/Negroes/colored folks have no business getting offended. We lost that privilege when we failed to protest against the movie "Life," a comedy about Mississippi's Parchman Prison Farm. Thousands of African-Americans went to see that movie and laughed their butts off, although there was nothing funny about Parchman Prison Farm, as brutal and racist and heinous a hellhole as has ever existed. But you heard not a whimper of protest about the film from the segment of the African-American community that specializes in being offended.

The problem is this: Each African-American knows what offends him or her personally and then assumes that every other African-American within a 5,000-mile radius feels - or should feel - the same way.

Instead of demoting or sacking Hawkins for using "language demeaning to African-Americans," Norris should thank the man - and Phelan, too. They both provided welcome comic relief for a city beset by homicides, drug addiction and drive-by shootings.

But Norris, it seems, is not in a laughing mood. In January, he said "everyone is culpable to some degree." Yesterday, Norris said that though the tone of voice Hawkins used was an embarrassment to the department, the 911 tape was not what bothered him most.

"It's the culture of vengeance I don't like," Norris said, referring to some officers feeling the need to get back at others. Hawkins is "a high-ranking guy. We don't need this, with all the other things that are happening in the city."

Norris was referring to those things like the aforementioned homicides, drive-bys and drug addiction. Norris, upset when the incident became public in January, is especially piqued that the incident has resurfaced.

"It won't go away," the commissioner said. Now he faces the task of deciding what to do with Hawkins, but that decision may not come soon. There are still people coming forth with information. Norris has to sort through what is fact and what is just rumor.

"I don't want to jump to any conclusions," the commissioner said. "I want to get all the facts."

That's about the most intelligent thing that has been said about this matter to date.

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