City police need more of Norris' surgical work

September 12, 2001|By Gregory Kane

BALTIMORE police Commissioner Ed Norris missed becoming Dr. Ed Norris by a few years and several thousand dollars.

Norris had a medical career in his sights when he entered New York City's Brooklyn Tech High School. He had to pass a competitive exam just to get in. Only two other New York City public high schools - Stuyvesant and Bronx School of Science - require competitive exams for admittance.

"It was eight hours daily of school for four years," Norris recalled. "Four years of math and four years of science."

His talent as a linebacker on Brooklyn Tech's football team led to an athletic scholarship at the University of Rochester in New York. Unluckily for Norris, the scholarship was for only three years. He left college and joined the police force. Now the man who might have performed traditional surgery in an operating room is known for performing another type of surgery on the Baltimore Police Department.

In May, Norris gave the boot to Deputy Commissioner Barry Powell and Col. James Hawkins Jr., two high-ranking African-American officers. Norris also fired Maj. Dawn Jessa and Col. Robert Novak from their posts, but, because they're Caucasians, their firings did not incur the wrath of the Powell and Hawkins dismissals.

Harboring delusions of power, some City Council members, in an attempt to flex rather flaccid muscles, called Norris forth and demanded an explanation for the Powell and Hawkins firings. The plight of Jessa (she accepted a demotion rather than retire as the rest did) and Novak was lost in the dudgeon. Norris responded that he could dismiss whom he wanted. Such was the power, he reminded the council, given him when the good body unanimously confirmed his appointment last year.

Still, some council members huffed. How dare Norris exercise the power he had been given? How dare he fire Powell?

There were some questions they could have fired at Norris, ones that concerned all Baltimoreans, not just police brass given the boot. For instance, just what was the security like at the city Police Department's Dundalk integrity unit, from which evidence against Officer Brian Sewell was stolen in December? The theft of the evidence led to Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy declining to prosecute Sewell for allegedly planting drugs on a suspect, which led to Mayor Martin O'Malley's now-legendary profane invective against her. Lost in the shuffle was how the theft came about in the first place. Some cars have better security.

Or, as Maryland American Civil Liberties Union head Susan Goering has consistently done, council members could have quizzed Norris on those 93,000 field interview stops in East Baltimore this year. Were they all legal? What was the probable cause? What's to be done with the data collected? Were any reports written about such stops, and can we perhaps see them, Mr. Commissioner?

But no such questions were put to Norris. Some council members - and it's worth noting they were all black - seemed more concerned about Powell keeping his job than about whether police were acting within the bounds of the law. In the hierarchy of blatant double standards, this had to rank No. 1. Norris didn't miss it.

"Oh, absolutely not," he answered when asked if he thought a black police commissioner would have been asked to appear before the City Council to explain firing Powell and Hawkins. "I'm a realist. [Former Commissioner Ronald] Daniel fired nine people in the two months when I was working for him. Every day when I came in there was an empty chair."

Daniel eventually resigned, leaving Norris, then No. 2 in the department, to assume command and to hire and dismiss command staff who served "at the pleasure of," as Norris put it, and as supporters of City Comptroller Joan Pratt put it when she fired Tony Ambridge from his job as real estate director.

Powell, Hawkins, Novak and Jessa were sacked, Norris said, because he felt they contributed to a "culture of vengeance" in the department. The department is a place where scores get settled with old enemies and favors are handed out to friends. One such case may have been that of Lt. John Mack, who will face a disciplinary hearing to answer charges that he was in a hoochie house one Saturday night when he was supposed to be on duty. According to what Mack's attorney said in several published reports, Hawkins gave Mack - an African-American - weekends off because of a leg injury.

While we ponder what sort of leg injury afflicts someone only on Saturday nights, consider Hawkins' actions against Lt. Regis Phelan, a white officer Hawkins tried to catch in a now-infamous sting operation involving driving a department vehicle home to Westminster.

It looks like the almost Dr. Norris may have yet some more surgery to perform on this police department to fix what ails it.

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