O'Malley defends Norris on firings

Critics urged to get past `hateful, divisive things'

May 17, 2001|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

A day after a sometimes tense meeting between the City Council and Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris, Mayor Martin O'Malley strongly defended his commissioner and said he hopes the department can get past the "hateful, divisive things" said by some elected officials and others about the removal of two senior black officers last week."

[Norris is] being called a racist is really what's going on," O'Malley said yesterday. "And I'm being called a racist by extrapolation."

The mayor said Norris has a strong record on racial issues and on hiring and promoting minorities.

Last night, members of Baltimore's General Assembly delegation met to discuss the removal of Deputy Police Commissioner Barry W. Powell and Col. James L. Hawkins Jr., which has sparked racially charged rhetoric from some black leaders.

Norris, who is white, also removed two senior white officers in a department shake-up announced Friday, but some black leaders have focused on the removal of Powell, who was the second-highest-ranking officer on the force and has strong allies among black elected leaders.

Norris gave the City Council a blunt defense Tuesday night, describing Powell and Hawkins as distractions in the department who contributed to the recent "backsliding" in the fight against crime.

Two council members, both white, issued strong public declarations of support for the commissioner. Most of the black members were critical in their questioning.

Remarks from some outside the council chambers have been more clearly charged with race.

Before last night's delegation meeting, Del. Nathaniel T. Oaks, a West Baltimore Democrat, said Norris' decision was racially motivated and that the chief felt threatened by a successful black in the department's No. 2 post.

"He's got to look over his shoulder the whole time," said Oaks, who last year wanted Powell chosen over Norris as commissioner.

Oaks said he realized his comments might exacerbate racial tensions.

"I'm not saying that me out here calling it the way I see it is going to help the situation," he said. "Things like this further divide ... the racial lines."

About a dozen other members of the House of Delegates from the city attended the meeting, called in hopes that Norris, Powell and the other removed officers would attend. None did.

Del. Salima Siler Marriott, a West Baltimore Democrat who is chairwoman of the House delegation, said afterward that she and other lawmakers will continue meeting to discuss matters such as police brutality, the recent spate of violence against officers and whether the Norris model of policing works.

Sun staff writer Neal Thompson contributed to this article.

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