Norris' skill, tact should earn him a second term

April 24, 2002|By Gregory Kane

BALTIMORE Police Commissioner Ed Norris won the first round of the confirmation process. In the biennial review before the Baltimore City Council's executive appointments committee, Norris ably presented his case for reconfirmation.

Norris, the target of a "Dump the White Guy" movement among some of Baltimore's African-American citizenry, started off with statistics. Baltimore had 305 homicides in 1999, the year before Norris became commissioner. There were 261 killings in 2000 and 256 in 2001.

Overall, violent crime incidents decreased by nearly 4,000 between 1999 and 2001, and dropped precipitously in all nine police districts.

When Norris finished with the crime figures, he moved on to that not-so-minor matter of minority representation on the police force. The commissioner had handed out computer run sheets of all the data to the council members present, but had one of his staffers place larger charts on easels so that those without the information could see.

A total of 174 more minorities and 69 more women were hired in 2000-2001 than were hired in 1998-1999. Minorities represented more than 60 percent of those hired in 2000 and nearly 55 percent of those hired in 2001. So far in 2002, 53 percent of officers hired have been minorities.

Norris presented data showing that nearly 21 percent of the department's lieutenants are minorities, up from just more than 15 percent in 1999.

The commissioner's figures on hiring and promotions paint a different picture from the one presented by a group of black officers from a group called ANSWER, an acronym for "And Still We Rise." Last week, they contended that Norris hadn't done diddly in the hiring and promotion of black officers. Representatives of the Vanguard Justice Society, which also represents black officers, challenged ANSWER's data.

If the council members were dazzled by the numbers, they didn't show it. Some in essence told Norris that, dropping crime statistics or no, they wanted more.

It was astonishing to see. Here was the Baltimore City Council, the original punt-on-first-down group, acting like, well, like legislators, for Pete's sake. Anybody's who's familiar with this body's heyday of playing yes men for the mayor must have figured they'd crossed over into the Twilight Zone.

There was the 2nd District's Bernard "Jack" Young, who presided over the hearing, telling Norris that he wasn't much impressed by the statistics.

"I see open-air drug markets," Young told Norris, "all day long, especially around my own home."

Agnes Welch of the 4th District said a similar situation prevails in her district.

"The drug dealing is back," Welch said, adding that she wants to see the Southwestern and Western District police stations work together to clean those drug corners "so people can walk the streets again."

Lois Garey of the 1st District even admonished Norris on the dispute surrounding the infamous "Healy memo," that epistolary boo-boo sent out by Maj. Donald Healy of the Northeastern District, ordering his troops to stop every black man around a bus stop on Woodbourne Avenue. Norris accepted Healy's resignation after that gaffe, said the memo was illegal and had his other commanders trained on the matter of racial profiling.

"But you can't train against stupidity," Garey cautioned Norris. The councilwoman added that she found it hard to believe that no other officer in the Northeastern District who read the memo didn't advise Healy it was worth a second look and a major change.

"There were officers there who said they saw the memo but didn't have the courage to tell him," Norris answered.

These guys patrol parts of East Baltimore that would make Navy SEALs weak in the knees, but didn't have the courage to tell him? OK, it'll take a stretch to believe that one, but Garey -- and Welch -- also insisted that although the statistics show a decline in crime, their constituents say they don't feel safe.

Norris responded by saying his department had to change public perception and that police had a long way to go in fighting crime. He handled the "constituents don't feel safe" matter with such skill and tact that it would be hard to deny him another term as commissioner.

Any other commissioner with non-Baltimore roots might have been tempted to answer, "They live in Baltimore. They're not used to feeling safe."

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