City should share in commissioner's worry

August 25, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

BY THE END of the week, Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris seemed to deflate in front of our eyes. On Thursday, he stood on a city sidewalk and wept at the loss of an officer. On Friday, wounded by a barrage of newspaper stories, he seemed worried about the loss of his job. We need some sense of proportion here.

The death of Officer Crystal Sheffield seemed to shake something loose in Norris. She was one of the good ones. She came from people who look out for the rest of us. She walked down dark alleys and calmed family disputes, the most troublesome of routine police work. She was rushing to help another cop when her car was struck, and she died in the ghastliest way.

Outside Maryland Shock Trauma Center, when word arrived that all Sheffield's life-support equipment had been removed, Norris ran a handkerchief across both eyes to stop the tears. Things were coming undone. An hour later, he sat in his office at police headquarters, and dejectedly shuffled papers on his desk. One was the morning newspaper. His name was on the front page again.

"The worst," he said now. He meant the death of Sheffield. "A whole family ... "

His voice was soft, and it trailed away. Sheffield, the mother of an 11-year old boy, was the wife of a city fire lieutenant. She came from a family full of police. She was the first female officer to die in the line of duty in the history of the department, and the sixth officer to die since Norris took the job early in 2000.

"Some things," he said, "you never get used to."

It seemed the final, dreadful blow in a week of troubles. The morning paper continued to trace his use of a previously little-known and, as it turns out, loosely monitored fund. Over two years, Norris had spent $178,000. Some of it went to police charities, to feel-good civic and religious organizations, to neighborhood assistance. But not all of it.

Some of it went for brass plaques honoring fallen officers. Some went for gifts. "The usual stuff," Norris said, "that police commissioners do. Gifts to other police. Goodwill stuff. Common stuff in the police world."

But not all of it. He gave a long sigh. The stories go beyond money given to worthwhile causes and fellow officers. There were trips to New York, to expensive hotels and restaurants. Maybe these are defensible and maybe not. The records are sloppy and incomplete, and the commissioner says he does not remember the details of each trip.

The mayor has ordered an audit. The look of such spending makes many people uneasy. It seems an act of privilege, which we instinctively resent in any public official. In the early days of the newspaper revelations, Norris seemed combative. Now he seemed conciliatory.

"Are you waiting for another shoe to drop?" he was asked.

"Yes. I don't know," he said.

"What other shoe?"

"I don't know. I don't know what to expect."

He started apologizing. This was Thursday, in the privacy of his office, and later he decided to issue a statement saying some of the same things he was saying now. "I'm sorry," he said. "I mean it, I wholeheartedly apologize. I'm sorry if I've offended anyone with the spending. I'm sorry if people thought it was extravagant or inappropriate.

"This is causing me a lot of pain. My wife's upset. My parents in Brooklyn are sick over it. The trips out of town, the meals at restaurants - there were dignitaries there, there was police business there."

The fund from which he spent is nothing new, only newly revealed by this newspaper. In the 1920s, police raised money for officers in need, and for Police Athletic League equipment. Over the decades, the money was converted to stock and grew considerably. By 1983, three separate accounts were consolidated into one "supplemental account."

Norris apologized again. He talked about his embarrassment that people might think he'd acted "sneaky or underhanded. I mean it - if I've offended anyone, I'm sorry. But this is painting me out to be a thief, and it's breaking my heart."

While we wait for any other shoes to drop, it is also a sign of a city with a short memory. Some of us remember other police commissioners. We remember the scandal of Donald Pomerleau, still new on the job, ordering officers to paint his house in their off-hours. He survived. We remember Pomerleau's intelligence unit investigating people whose political views Pomerleau didn't like. Pomerleau survived.

We remember a bunch of commissioners who seemed utterly overmatched as crime tore at this city. Neighborhoods toppled. But the commissioners hung around.

Since Norris' arrival, we have violent crimes down 20 percent. We have property crimes down 13 percent. We have a formerly demoralized department feeling better about itself, and neighborhoods with a greater sense of security than they've known in years and years.

Norris said the mayor has been "very supportive, he's been great." He said City Council members have called to offer support. By week's end, though, he sounded like a man worried for his job. In a city that still sometimes shudders at the sight of its own reflection in the mirror, we should all tremble a little.

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