District commander was a good police officer -- but a bad memo writer

March 10, 2002|By Gregory Kane

IS IT "Operation Get Norris," or simply a case of a police major getting justly sacked?

Let's set the stage here. Late on the night of Feb. 21, a black woman was raped on Woodbourne Avenue in Northeast Baltimore. The suspect was described as black and male, in his early 30s, about 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighing 180 pounds.

The next night, Maj. Donald Healy, the commander of the Baltimore Police Department's Northeastern District -- who probably wants to nail this guy sooner as opposed to later or never -- issues a memo to his officers that led to his resignation last week: Stop every black male at a bus stop in the 1500 block of Woodbourne Ave.

You have to wonder why cooler heads didn't prevail at the Northeastern District at this point. Not one lieutenant or sergeant said to Healy, "Major, you might want to change the phrasing in this memo just a tad. There may be trouble with it worded as is."

Had they received no satisfaction from Healy, they could have gone to Commissioner Ed Norris, whose tolerance level for stupidity is just about zero. But noooooo. Everybody just sits around at Northeastern, except for the enterprising soul who may or may not have passed on the memo.

That soul, or someone he or she passed the memo on to, waited a week before sending it to former state Sen. Larry Young, who's not only a talk-show host on WOLB radio but also president of the local chapter of the National Action Network, a group headed nationally by the Rev. Al Sharpton.

It is here that suspicions about the motives of the memo's sender should surface. Folks with a legitimate gripe send such things to all media outlets: television, newspaper and radio. This sender chose a media figure who is well known for being no friend of Norris or the man who appointed him, Mayor Martin O'Malley. Young realizes as much himself.

"That [the motive of the memo sender] did come across my mind," Young said Thursday amid the dispute that ensued after he broadcast the contents of Healy's memo Tuesday, "that they sent it to someone who doesn't have the warmest relationship with them [Norris and O'Malley]. But I give them credit when they do something right. My callers are harsher on them than I am," he said.

To his credit, Young didn't charge to his microphone after getting a copy of the memo, which he says he received in a sealed envelope from an anonymous sender.

"I hesitated," Young said. "I couldn't believe it was on Police Department stationery." He called sources in the department, who confirmed the memo's authenticity, and spoke to WOLB staffers to be certain that Radio One was doing nothing libelous in airing the contents of the Healy memo.

So Norris and Young are in agreement on at least one thing: incredulity about Healy's memo. Norris recalled his initial reaction to Healy's memo, which he learned about late Tuesday morning.

"I found it hard to believe a major would put that in a memo," Norris said. Norris and Young are also in accord about catching the rapist. Young said, "We don't want the fact the woman was raped to be lost in the controversy," and he supports efforts made by Eric Easton, a National Action Network member, to visit the 1500 block of Woodbourne Ave. tomorrow to urge people to form block watch associations. Easton plans to give residents a phone number they can call to offer information about possible suspects.

Norris believes Healy's wording in the memo was not done in malice. Still, he said, the policy in the memo is illegal. Had someone, anyone, in Northeastern come to him with the memo, the result -- Healy being gone -- would have been the same.

"It's the most frightening thing," Norris said, "thinking you'll be targeted because of the color of your skin." As a white, male police commissioner who has been targeted by some black Baltimoreans because of the color of his skin, Norris can certainly empathize.

Like Young, Norris had some suspicions about the motive of the person who sent the memo.

"That was done by design," Norris said of Radio One being the only media outlet to receive the memo. "It's not an accident. It goes right to an inflammatory talk show that has an agenda." Sending the memo, Norris figures, opened "the door for all the racial racketeering that goes on around here."

The racial racketeers -- black and white -- haven't been quieted by Norris' acceptance of Healy's resignation. Norris knows -- and so does Healy, as does Col. James Hawkins before him -- that high-ranking police officials are only one boo-boo away from unemployment. Healy is gone because he didn't add three measly words to his memo: "fitting this description."

Healy, Norris said, was "an outstanding field commander." Another officer, who chose not to be identified, described Healy as a true leader, a no-nonsense commander: If he told you to blush, you wouldn't even dare ask "How red?" The department has lost a good one.

Too bad he didn't get someone else to write his memos for him.

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