Easy-to-like Norris looks at race issues, crime, his tough early days in city

September 09, 2001|By GREGORY KANE

ED NORRIS, Baltimore's chief of police, is an easy man to disagree with when it comes to law enforcement policy. But he's an even easier guy to like.

So there he was one afternoon, sitting at a table in McCormick & Schmick's Seafood Restaurant on Eastern Avenue, having lunch with some guy who also happened to be his harshest media critic. Norris talked freely, about crime, race relations in Baltimore, his reception when he got here and what it's like to be a white police commissioner.

"What I think was unfair in the reception I got here was a misperception of what's going on in New York," Norris began, even before he ordered lunch. "The [Amadou] Diallo shooting was a horrible tragedy and an aberration in law enforcement. The [Abner] Louima case shocked even career law enforcement people. But there are 50,000 New York police officers. In any company, you have bad apples. I thought it was unfair to paint me with that brush."

Diallo was the African immigrant killed in early 1999 when detectives from the NYPD's Street Crimes Unit fired 41 shots at him when, so they claim, they thought the wallet Diallo reached for was a gun. The four officers were charged and acquitted. Louima was the Haitian immigrant whom Officer Justin Volpe sodomized with a wooden stick. Volpe got 30 years.

"The NYPD did some amazing things," Norris said. Teaching SCU members the difference between a wallet and a gun was clearly not among them. But Norris said police shootings have been less frequent during Mayor Rudy Giuliani's term than under the previous mayor, David Dinkins.

The policing in New York -- and the style that he has brought to Baltimore -- is one that Norris insists is "more assertive."

"More assertive does not mean more fascist," Norris contends. "You can be more assertive and professional at the same time." That belief comes from the scorn Norris has for what he called the "academic attitude that nothing can be done about crime." It's a view that Norris, no doubt kindly, dubbed nonsense.

He was less kind to those SCU officers who, when he was a deputy commissioner in New York, went around wearing T-shirts with a quote from Ernest Hemingway printed on them.

"Certainly there is no hunting like the hunting of man," the quote goes, "and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never really care for anything else thereafter." When the T-shirts appeared, Norris was head of the department's fugitive division.

"I never saw the T-shirts, but I know where the quote comes from," Norris said. "It's from The Snows of Kilimanjaro. When I was head of the fugitive division, I developed a manual on how to track down fugitives. I opened the manual one day, and there was the quote. I went ballistic. I asked, `Who's the idiot who put this inside this book?'"

Low tolerance for idiots may be why Norris rose through the ranks in New York and eventually became commissioner in Baltimore. But it was a rough road. To his face -- and, more telling, off the record -- Norris says, some black city politicians told him he was the most qualified candidate to be commissioner but, alas, the wrong color.

"One even told me `we were expecting a different hue,'" Norris recalled. "I find real irony in the fact that politicians in a 65 percent African-American city said I was best-qualified and yet they wanted to drive me out. I put a question to them. `You're telling me,' I said, `you'd rather have more young black men die than have a white police commissioner?'"

Norris paused a second after recounting the incident, then asked "Has Baltimore always been this polarized?"

He was talking about racial polarization, of course, and -- come on, Balti-morons of every hue -- we have to shout "Amen!" and give Norris, whether we support or oppose him, credit for at least his perceptiveness.

But Norris doesn't know the half of it. The black politicians who dissed him for being white were not necessarily being either racist or insensitive. They simply know what the Baltimore Police Department was like before Donald Pomerleau took over in 1966: racist, brutal and incompetent. Some black pols in Baltimore may believe that having a black commissioner is the only protection against a return to those days.

Still, the scene is foreign to Norris. He passed a test to get into New York's academically tough Brooklyn Tech High School. The student body was 40 percent white, 30 percent African-American, 15 percent Hispanic and 15 percent Asian when Norris attended. His background is working class -- his dad was a butcher before joining the NYPD at 33 -- and Norris, who played linebacker on Brooklyn Tech's football team, remembers having to walk through a housing project to get to the practice field.

"We would get sniped at in football practice," Norris remembers.

More than 20 years later, Norris is still getting sniped at. But he believes most Baltimoreans are behind him.

"I took it [the criticism] and went through it all," he said. "But if people here think you're working hard, they tend to accept that."

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