Norris to explain shake-up at hearing

Panel meets tonight to discuss removal of two top black officers

Mayor backs police chief

May 15, 2001|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

In response to last week's shake-up at the Baltimore Police Department in which two high-ranking African-American officers were removed from their posts, the City Council voted last night to ask Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris to defend his actions at a hearing this evening.

Norris agreed to attend the hearing of the council's Public Safety Committee, which is scheduled to meet at 5 p.m. at City Hall.

Councilman Norman A. Handy Sr., who heads the Public Safety Committee, introduced the resolution seeking Norris' explanation.

Handy said he was concerned that Norris' actions appeared racially motivated and that the commissioner is replacing longtime Baltimore officers with officers from New York, where Norris served before coming to the city last year.

Earlier in the day, in a closed-door meeting with council members, Mayor Martin O'Malley defended Norris' decision to remove four top commanders Friday, including his second-in-command, Deputy Police Commissioner Barry W. Powell, the highest-ranking African-American officer on the force.

O'Malley, speaking with reporters after the meeting, declined to discuss the specific reasons for the dismissal of Powell and the three other commanders, two of whom are white. But he did say again that he backed Norris' decision to make personnel changes at a time when homicides and shootings had risen.

"I absolutely support these decisions he's made," O'Malley said. "We weren't moving in the right direction at the speed we should have been moving."

Council members said that O'Malley did not address all of their concerns during the meeting and that they wanted Norris to answer their questions.

"The mayor has talked to us, but the commissioner is the one who should talk to us. He's the one who made the decision," said Councilwoman Agnes Welch, a West Baltimore Democrat.

O'Malley said yesterday that he would have preferred Norris not speak in public about personnel matters, but instead meet individually in the coming days with each council member. Council members initially seemed satisfied with that idea, but later in the day decided to support Handy's request for Norris to defend his actions at a hearing.

One question that a number of council members said O'Malley left unanswered was why Norris removed Powell and the other top officers just days after applauding some of his department's successes.

"If Barry Powell was in charge of the day-to-day operations, he's got to get some credit for the successes they've had," Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., a Democrat from Northeast Baltimore's 3rd District, said after the meeting.

During his meeting with reporters, O'Malley said Norris' decisions last week didn't come out of the blue, as some have suggested. He said the moves had been in the works, despite Powell's appearance by Norris' side at a May 8 news conference trumpeting Norris' first year as commissioner and his success in reducing crime.

O'Malley said that despite last year's drop in homicides and violent crime, 40 homicides have occurred in a recent 40-day period, evidence that the Police Department's efforts had "slipped off track."

To get back on track, O'Malley said, "We should have the best leadership possible. ... I think the people of this city just want to see homicides driven down."

Sun staff writer M. Dion Thompson contributed to this article.

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