Police chief fields complaints at hearing

Norris' contract is up for 6-year renewal

May 15, 2002|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

In a marathon four-hour session, City Council members, the public and several disgruntled police officers peppered Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris last night with questions about crime, unjust arrests and racial discrimination in the department during his reconfirmation hearing.

The hearing started with plenty of vitriol. A series of disgruntled officers - including one fired for working at what Norris termed a "whorehouse" while supposedly on duty and another who stood on a Bible to signify her sincerity - testified that the department was rife with racial bias.

Waving statistical graphs, the officers challenged testimony by Norris about increased minority hiring, and complained about disparate treatment of white and black officers. The comments prompted one councilman to suggest that a mediator sort out police infighting.

"Whether it is politics or whatever, there is a problem," said Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young, an East Baltimore Democrat who chaired the hearing of the Executive Appointments Committee. "The public sees the Police Department fighting and then we wonder why we can't get crime down."

Norris, whose contract is up for a six-year renewal, responded that he has tried to resolve internal issues by meeting regularly with members of the city branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Vanguard Justice Society - a minority officers association - and the Fraternal Order of Police.

"Sometimes bad employees are just bad employees," Norris said, noting that one officer who testified was upset about not getting a promotion despite not having had full police powers for 13 years.

G.I. Johnson, president of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP, testified that he is pleased that Norris has been responsive to his concerns and that complaints to his office are down.

"We have done a lot of good, made a lot of progress," Johnson said.

Norris trumpeted his successes since coming to Baltimore two years ago, saying violent crime is down 21 percent, leading the nation in crime reduction; minority hires have increased 13 percent, to 53 percent; and the backlog of discipline cases has been reduced.

"By all accounts, things are going in the right direction. It's something the citizens should take comfort in," Norris said.

But council members said they were upset about continuing open-air drug markets. They also expressed concern that many people were being wrongfully arrested. Prosecutors declined to formally charge about 25 percent of all people arrested -15,798 people last year.

Councilwoman Lisa Joi Stancil asked whether Norris was keeping tabs on the cases dropped so he could identify training issues or problem officers.

Norris said he needed a better line of communication with the state's attorney's office. The prosecutor's office and the Police Department have been quarreling for months.

"I want to address these issues," Norris said. "I can't fix what I don't know."

Young echoed Stancil's concerns. He said he was wrongfully arrested when he was 19 and was angry at the police for a long time. "I just got over it three or four years ago," he said.

At the hearing, some residents complained that officers don't respond quickly enough when they report drug-dealing going on near their homes.

Norris said that crimes in progress receive priority and sometimes it can take a while for police to show up at a drug corner.

Young said he wanted officers on foot patrol.

"The same guys [are] on the corner, 24-7, dealing drugs all day long," Young said.

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