Norris grilling proves that disparity does indeed persist

May 18, 2002|By GREGORY KANE

HOW'S THIS for sheer baffling irony? Folks gathered in the City Council chamber Tuesday to excoriate Baltimore police Commissioner Ed Norris. Three African-Americans -- one former lieutenant and two officers still on the force -- said that the disparity in discipline for black and white cops still exists.

That's a horrible double standard, they moaned, apparently oblivious to the other double standard. It's the one they applied to Norris, the white guy. Has there ever been a black police commissioner -- and there have been several -- who's gone through this type of reconfirmation hearing?

You know there hasn't. That disparity in discipline existed under those black commissioners. (That disparity does, indeed, exist. But it's not what it seems. That, alas, is for another column.) The double standard black cops face didn't become an issue, however, until we had two white police commissioners.

The first was Thomas Frazier, who was labeled a racist. The second is Norris. How badly do his critics want him out? Badly enough to make any accusation, however unfounded, in hopes that the Big Lie, if repeated often enough, will be taken as the truth.

A few weeks ago, WOLB talk-show host Larry Young -- a frequent critic of Norris, but one who won't hesitate to give the commissioner some kudos when he does something right -- was on the airwaves. A "hot wire" source, Young said, told him that if folks called the medical examiner's office and asked how many homicides occurred in Baltimore so far this year, they would get a figure considerably higher than the one city police reported. The discrepancy, Young said his "hot wire" source confided, was that police reported only those who were shot to death. The figure didn't account for those who were dispatched using more, shall we say, creative means.

At the time, city cops officially reported 79 homicides in Baltimore for 2002. A call to the medical examiner's office revealed that homicides in Baltimore totaled 91 at the time. But the medical examiner's spokesman gave an entirely different reason for the difference. The number of people who were killed in Baltimore, according to the medical examiner's office, was 74 at the time, lower than the figure police gave.

The other homicide victims were shot, stabbed, bludgeoned or otherwise harmed outside of Baltimore and died in a hospital here, usually Maryland Shock Trauma Center. If someone dies in this city as a result of homicide, it's listed as a Baltimore homicide.

The "hot wire" source was more than likely one of those disgruntled cops on the city force still in high dudgeon that Norris got the commissioner's job. Put the foolishness out there, this cretin figured, and no one will check. The "hot wire" source is akin to one of Young's callers who said that Norris was "dating" one of the women on the City Council. He knew the rumor was true, the caller said, because -- I hope you're sitting down for this -- he heard it in a barbershop.

"This is just personal," Norris said of the attacks and allegations, a few days after the show aired. "It goes back to [the fact that his critics] lost the first round when I got appointed."

It got more than personal Tuesday at the City Council hearing. In addition to the accusations that he tolerated discrimination and doctored the crime statistics, some folks added a new charge: Norris, apparently, is responsible for the fact that court records aren't properly expunged.

It's because the department arrests so many folks who aren't charged, you see. When some astute soul pointed out that you can indeed get your record expunged if you aren't charged, the response was offered, without a shred of proof, that your name remains in "the system" even after it's expunged. Exactly how this is Norris' fault was never made clear.

The allegations, complaints and questions -- this had to be the psychological equivalent of a body cavity search -- went on for four hours. Norris handled it all with aplomb. That's probably why he'll be reconfirmed. That and the words of one elderly black woman from the Rosemont community who might have been the wisest person in the chamber.

"The commissioner can't change it by himself," the woman said of the complaints that school-age drug dealers operated open-air drug markets early in the day. "The commissioner can't be on the corner at six in the morning. He's got better things to do."

The problem, the woman said, is in the home.

"If you don't do something in the house, you can forget it."

Amen to that, wise one.

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