Norris aims to shake up `culture of vengeance'

May 23, 2001|By Gregory Kane

ED NORRIS, THE embattled but unyielding Baltimore City police commissioner, was in town only a short while when he noticed what was wrong with the department.

Norris, at the time, was the No. 2 man behind then-Commissioner Ron Daniel, who fired nine people from his command staff without so much as a whimper from the Baltimore City Council. Less than two weeks ago, Norris fired two black command staffers, Deputy Commissioner Barry Powell and Col. James Hawkins. He also fired Col. Robert Novak and Maj. Dawn Jessa, both white, but some City Council members - who figured they were calling Norris on the carpet in a May 15 hearing - acted as though the sacked Caucasians didn't count.

Norris told the council that a "culture of vengeance" existed within the Baltimore Police Department. Officers, even command staff, were prone to settle old scores. There was cronyism, with transfers and assignments based on whom officers went to school with or worked with in a particular district. Not one council member asked Norris to elaborate further on that theme. They came to either pillory him or slurp his shoes. Heaven forfend any of them should have asked a question that might have informed Baltimoreans.

But Norris did elaborate after the hearing. He first noticed a symptom of the "culture of vengeance" when Daniel announced the sacking of one particular colonel. Norris just happened to drive to the central district one night around 11.

"One sergeant had pulled [the fired colonel's] parking sign down, and he and another officer were jumping on it like kids in the school yard," Norris recalled. "I drove by and asked, `What are you doing?' They were embarrassed and shocked. They were surprised to see me at that time of night."

When he took the job, Norris continued, police officers who once had a problem with someone they worked with were already planning to settle old scores. Norris has no doubts about whether such a culture adversely affects police work.

"I know it does," the commissioner said. "It's hard enough to focus on your job as a police officer without outside distractions."

Norris told the council Powell and Hawkins were canned because of their involvement in a January sting operation against Lt. Regis Phelan, who had taken an unmarked patrol car home to Carroll County. Phelan had authorization from Maj. John Bergbower to take the car home. Suspecting that Phelan had taken the car without authorization, Hawkins embarked on an elaborate sting operation that involved Hawkins going to Phelan's home, bringing the car back to Baltimore and making a 911 call to report it stolen.

It would have been much simpler for Hawkins to order Phelan to return the car, but, as the commissioner has indicated, simple solutions are anathema in this department.

"I didn't think it [the sting] was that big a deal at first," Norris said. But then he learned that Hawkins and Phelan had become enemies when they worked the same district together. That meant the "culture of vengeance" was rearing its ugly head yet again.

So Norris decided that Hawkins had to go. Believing Powell was involved, and with crime going up, the commissioner banished him, too. (Powell, in an interview Sunday night with Terry Owens of WMAR-TV, insisted he knew nothing about the sting operation but claimed a major in internal affairs did and has not been fired.)

Powell's innocence is beside the point. Norris has the right to choose his command staff. And every Baltimorean who knows anything about our cops knows this department is at least 50 years overdue for a major shake-up.

"It's overdue for a major cultural shake-up," Norris agreed. Years ago, Baltimore's Police Department was Birmingham, Ala., north. That might be why the police dogs that Birmingham's commissioner of public safety, Bull Connor, turned loose on civil rights demonstrators in 1963 were on loan from the Baltimore police dog unit. A year later, Baltimore cops terrorized black citizens in the notorious Veney raids, in which they busted down doors in search of Sam and Earl Veney, who were accused of killing a cop. Commissioner Donald Pomerleau arrived two years later and brought the department out of the backwater mode, but neither he nor successive commissioners made a dent in the "culture of vengeance."

That's why the disparity in discipline black officers complained about in recent years persisted through several commissioners, black and white. Norris said the cronyism even extended to trial boards, with cops he knew were guilty being acquitted. Baltimore's Police Department was at one time awfully bad, and it's still really not that good (which may be why homicides were above 300 for years). The Norris shake-up is an attempt to get it where it should be. The culture of vengeance has got to go. Even Mayor Martin O'Malley has noticed it, and suggested that a motto might be placed on department headquarters that reads:

"The Baltimore Police Department: We Always Get Our Colleague."

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