Ed Norris' first year shows gains in policing

Verdict: All-out campaign against violence is paying off, but tough problems within the force persist.

May 10, 2001

THE DIRTY LITTLE secret among criminologists is that no one quite knows why crime goes up or down. Virtually the only thing that can be statistically proved is that when crime dips because of crackdowns, citizen complaints against police tend to skyrocket.

That's why Edward T. Norris' first year as Baltimore's police commissioner is impressive. An all-out policing effort has helped curb the city's shockingly high homicide rate without triggering a wave of complaints about excessive law enforcement tactics.

This is particularly gratifying because alarmists predicted the opposite just a year ago. They argued Mr. Norris' New York training and background -- he had been a deputy commissioner there -- virtually guaranteed he would employ cowboy tactics to suppress crime.

Mayor Martin O'Malley got elected on a platform that promised an overall reduction of crime. To fulfill his pledge, he has given the police much-needed resources. Officers' training has been improved, technologies upgraded.

The weak link in all this is Mr. Norris' command structure.

It is scary that Deputy Commissioner Barry W. Powell feels a need to deny that he played a part in a petty vendetta that threatens to derail the career of Col. James L. Hawkins Jr., the head of criminal investigations.

It is equally scary that top commanders waste time quarreling about seating arrangements at meetings and then pull rank to retaliate against perceived slights.

It is time for Mr. Norris to put an end to this feuding. Otherwise the promise of his first year may quickly be undone.

The city Police Department may be in for trying times. The FBI has been investigating for months some 20 city officers who are suspected of a variety of illegalities while moonlighting at an office supply store. If the probe results in indictments, a pall would be cast over the whole department.

Meanwhile, a lieutenant is in hot water because a raid found him inside an illegal West Baltimore strip club, while he was supposed to be working. He had even removed his gun -- something an officer should never feel comfortable enough to do in public.

Is this an isolated incident or a sign of widespread internal corruption?

This is a question Mr. Norris must answer conclusively as he starts his second year as Baltimore's top cop.

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