Come clean, Chief

August 22, 2002

BALTIMORE HAS already recorded more than one shooting for every day this year. And this summer has been wickedly violent -- with an upsurge in homicides and a disturbing spate of child killings.

So it's not hyperbole to suggest that the city still needs a police chief whose full attention is on police matters, perhaps even 24 hours a day. But is Edward T. Norris that leader?

Two weeks ago, there was no doubt. Mr. Norris was the tough New York cop who had brought order to Baltimore's chaotic crime-fighting efforts and made big dents in violent crime. The mayor couldn't stop singing his praises and the City Council had just fattened his retirement fund to ensure he didn't leave before 2004.

Then came revelations that he'd been using a department slush fund to live large in New York, staying at fancy hotels and eating expensive meals. And rather than confess his indiscretions and apologize, Mr. Norris demurred and said he couldn't remember how he'd spent the money.

Now, he finds himself pilloried with questions about the details of his travel and dining habits, which are becoming known little by little. And increasingly, the picture being painted is of a guy who uses public funds for his personal pursuits while criminals walk the streets and cash to fight crime is scarce. An independent audit of the fund also looms large over Mr. Norris' reputation as it attempts to learn exactly how the money was spent.

These are all distractions the commissioner cannot afford.

The truth may be that Mr. Norris is not indulging the preoccupation, and is still doing his job just as before. And certainly, his pricey trips to New York didn't prevent him from him from working to cut the number of city homicides below 300 for the first time in a decade, or from lowering overall violent crime.

But this is about image, too, and in that context Mr. Norris faces two very real problems. First, he is feeding the perception that he's a law-and-order guy when it comes to running his department and enforcing crime in the city, but a fan of looser standards when it comes to his own dealings. Worse, he is fostering the idea that he has something to hide. That makes it much more difficult for the chief to put the slush fund issue behind him, and refocus everyone's attention on fighting crime.

Those problems are not only staring Mr. Norris in the face; they're confronting his boss, Mayor Martin O'Malley, who has tied most of his own political fortune to the success of his administration's crime-fighting. This is all more than a distraction for the mayor; it's a potential threat to his future.

Mr. Norris doesn't have much choice here.

He's a good police commissioner, with many fine accomplishments to his name. But if city residents have the impression that he's distracted -- either by his social life or by the furor raised over the slush fund he used to pay for it -- he can't be effective.

Mr. Norris has got to come clean about the spending -- so he, and the city, can move on.

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