Assertive policing is making the city safer

September 07, 2001

While I cannot speak to the incident Herbert J. Holter cites (I wasn't there, and the column does not contain enough detail for us to investigate it, although we will investigate any complaint filed), I disagree strongly with his charge that the Baltimore Police Department has created a "police-state environment" in this city ("City's war on crime comes with a heavy toll," Opinion Commentary, Aug. 22).

For many years, American police departments did not take action against crime. They responded to calls for service, took reports, and moved to the next call.

As a young cop, I heard police commanders say, about residents of poor communities, "They are killing each other. It's not our problem." Consequently, drug dealing, shootings and murder escalated out of control in neighborhoods populated by people who were poor and, often, people of color. I always found this attitude intolerable.

Epidemic drug use and sale have many causes. Police, acting alone, can't turn back the clock. But police departments let some communities get so bad because they (or their political leadership) didn't care enough about poor people (often people of color) to prevent children from having to step around drug dealers on their way to school and from feeling they had to carry guns to protect themselves.

Last year was the first year in more than a decade in which fewer than 300 people were murdered in this city (261 were killed, 14 percent fewer than the year before). This year, as of Aug. 29, murder is down another 15 percent. This is not the result of magic or national trends. It is the result of better police work in the communities most affected by crime.

It is essential that police perform their difficult and dangerous work in a manner that is lawful, efficient, assertive and relentless. Police must follow prescribed procedures to secure suspects and maintain safety on the streets. These procedures, while designed to minimize injury or worse to everyone involved, do sometimes require escalating application of force when there is not immediate and willing compliance with orders designed to de-escalate the threat.

At the same time, we need every community to help create an atmosphere of intolerance for behaviors that demand police action.

Every street, block and neighborhood - no matter where it is or how much money residents have - deserves to be drug- and crime-free. We need help and support of people throughout the city to make this a reality.

But those who prefer police indifference to police doing their jobs in a lawful and assertive way are saying, in effect, that they don't care what happens to the law-abiding majority of citizens who live in poor communities.

Edward T. Norris

Baltimore

The writer is Baltimore's police commissioner.

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