Commissioner ousts top-level police officers

Norris says shake-up is result of failure to cut crime enough

4 are expected to retire

May 12, 2001|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris announced a major shake-up of his department yesterday, removing his second-in-command and three other high-ranking officers, saying he was "not satisfied" by their efforts to drive down crime.

Norris said he was worried about a recent spike in homicides that the department seemed unable to stop. If the recent rate of killings continues, the city would not meet its goal of substantially reducing homicides.

"Too many people in the city - many of them kids - are dying," Norris said during a news conference announcing the changes.

Norris' action was immediately met with criticism by some city leaders and a black police officers group. They particularly questioned the wisdom of removing Deputy Police Commissioner Barry W. Powell, who ran day-to-day police operations and was the force's highest-ranking African-American.

City Council President Sheila Dixon and state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV expressed doubts about Norris' explanation, with Dixon saying Powell should be given credit for helping lower crime. Last year the city homicide total fell below 300 for the first time in a decade.

Powell said last night that he did not understand why Norris would call his performance into question. Norris and Powell stood side by side at a news conference Tuesday, trumpeting the commissioner's first year in office.

"If his first year was a success, then so was mine," Powell said. "Don't cast a cloud over my accomplishments as a leader. I think that is highly unfair."

Powell asserted that Norris wants to replace him and the other commanders with officials from outside the department.

"I think it's an injustice," Powell said. "I'm certain there are individuals slated to take our places whoever they may be."

Norris said that, for the time being, he would take over Powell's duties. Powell said he would retire.

The changes come a week after a high-ranking officer was widely criticized for his involvement in a botched sting operation. Yesterday, Norris removed that commander, Col. James L. Hawkins, from his post, as well as Col. Robert C. Novak, who oversaw the department's patrol division, and Maj. Dawn Jessa, who headed the communications unit.

Only Powell could be reached for comment. The three other commanders are also expected to retire rather than be demoted to the rank of lieutenant.

Earlier this year, Hawkins tried to trap a subordinate who he believed was improperly using a take-home police car. Hawkins surreptitiously took the car from the lieutenant's home in Carroll County and dropped it off in Baltimore before calling 911 and disguising his voice to report the alleged theft.

Many city leaders found the call - in which Hawkins stutters in a way some likened to a performance in a minstrel show - to be demeaning to African-Americans.

Powell found himself immersed in the controversy last week, when high-ranking police sources have said he was involved in the sting operation, apparently even scouting out the lieutenant's home in Westminster. Powell has vehemently denied the accusations.

Norris has called the sting a "colossal waste of time" and alluded to it during his news conference yesterday, saying commanders were focusing too much energy on internal squabbles and not enough on fighting crime.

"I'd like to see the agency focus outside," Norris said.

High-ranking police sources said Norris was growing fed up and frustrated in recent months with commanders who seemed unable to reduce crime, particularly homicides. In the past 41 days, more than 40 people have been killed in the city.

"He has not been happy with the speed the department is moving," said Deputy Police Commissioner Bert L. Shirey, who oversees the department's administrative arm. "It's stagnating."

Shirey and other commanders said they thought Norris would have made the changes anyway. But the recent revelations about the sting operation might have pushed him to take quicker action.

Norris said he has been consulting with Mayor Martin O'Malley in recent days about the changes. O'Malley declined to speak publicly yesterday but issued a one-sentence statement defending Norris' decisions.

"Commissioner Norris has my full support to make whatever personnel changes are necessary to save lives and improve the effectiveness of the Baltimore City [police] department."

But Mitchell said he's going to press the mayor and Norris for more details on the shake-up.

"We're going to challenge the mayor and the police commissioner," Mitchell said. "We haven't been given a real reason."

Dixon also seemed perplexed.

"Based on the crime reduction, I would suspect that Powell is the main driver behind that," Dixon said in an interview. "There has to be another reason. Or, somebody is not being up-front about his performance."

Sgt. Rick Hite, president of the Vanguard Justice Society, which represents the department's black officers, also criticized the changes, saying Norris should have consulted him before making any decisions.

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