Anti-crime momentum must not dissipate

Police flap: Highly charged political agendas collide after Commissioner Norris cleans house.

May 17, 2001

THE FLAP over the ouster of two of Baltimore's top African-American cops is all about conflicting political agendas, patronage and race.

The city doesn't need this sort of polarizing diversion. Instead of bickering, Baltimoreans should be pulling together to stamp out crime and make the city work again. There is plenty for all of us to do -- from decision-makers to ordinary residents.

The fact is lethal violence is again on the rise. If the current pace continues, Baltimore could end up with more than 300 homicides in 2001, making last year's dip an aberration.

Mayor Martin O'Malley owes his election to a pledge to reduce bloodshed and killings. Virtually all of his political capital is tied up in such promises.

If he cannot deliver, no one will take seriously his assurances that Baltimore is a turnaround city that needs further sacrifices from its heavily taxed residents and increased aid from the state.

This is the larger context of Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris' decision last week to remove his chief deputy, Barry W. Powell, and Col. James L. Hawkins Jr., who headed criminal investigations.

The reshuffle triggered undue political commotion. The reason: Mr. Norris is white and from New York; those two ousted commanders are African-American and from Baltimore. (Two white commanders -- one male, one female -- were also ejected by Mr. Norris last week.)

Except for the racial dimension that has been raised by some, Baltimore has lived through similar events before.

Howls of protests used to greet attempts by outside superintendents to overhaul the city's failing school system.

Entrenched bureaucrats worried about diminished standing in their professional and social circles; their political patrons feared loss of useful contacts and clout. For a long time, these considerations proved more important than the shameful state of public education.

Deputy Commissioner Powell and Colonel Hawkins were part of a hometown network in which buddies supported one another. The situation started to unravel, though, when Mr. Hawkins, in a vendetta against an underling, filed a fabricated report about a supposedly stolen police cruiser. Police wasted countless hours in investigating his anonymous call and later, when his identity became known, the mess he had created.

About the same time, he and Mr. Powell met with Commissioner Norris to defend a veteran lieutenant who was caught in an illegal sex club while he was on duty.

This was intolerable. Unhealthy cronyism threatened to compromise the department at a time when two dozen officers were embroiled in internal corruption probes that, also, had begun to capture headlines.

When Commissioner Norris decided to clean house, he knew the bottom line. It was going to be either Messrs. Powell's and Hawkins's necks or his own. As Mr. Norris told the City Council: "I serve at the pleasure of the mayor; they serve at my pleasure."

Mayor O'Malley has his imperative from voters. Other political figures have different agendas.

For example, state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV has to worry about the very real possibility that his West Baltimore district will disappear because of the city's population loss. This current controversy tends to serve his interest in keeping his name in front of voters. Commissioner Norris is a convenient excuse to get a posturing Mr. Mitchell on television.

Disgraced former state Sen. Larry Young needs a hubbub to keep his talk show's ratings up. And he needs to stay on radio if he wants to resurrect his aborted political career.

The racial dimension of the Norris controversy is far more complicated.

The police commissioner's personal popularity is high. But to some African-American Baltimoreans, a white police commissioner and a white mayor in a majority-black city are constant reminders of a serious political vacuum that shows no sign of ending.

This black leadership vacuum was much in evidence Tuesday when Commissioner Norris testified at the invitation of a City Council committee.

Council members were embarrassingly ill-prepared, asking surprisingly uninformed questions. Sheila Dixon, the council president, even asked about the legal basis of Commissioner Norris' command authority.

In the end, the council hearing was a useless exercise. It provided no significant new information. Probably no one's view of events was changed.

It served, however, to point up the irrelevance of some council members and their continuing discomfort with the clear voter mandate that swept Martin O'Malley into office.

That mandate remains unchanged: to make Baltimore safe again as a first step toward its economic resurgence.

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