City needs new police chief to deliver on familiar promises

January 26, 2003|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THE NEW police commissioner of Baltimore, Kevin Clark, arrived at City Hall on Friday with a Noo Yawk accent and a street-corner mentality. He says the street corners will now belong to him and not to the drug dealers who currently control so many of them and chill entire neighborhoods.

This is good to hear, but not exactly new. Clark will replace The Deserter, also known as Edward T. Norris, who slipped out of town and gave up fighting murderers and heroin dealers for the vitally important job of supervising traffic tickets on suburban highways. Clark comes with a background fighting drug traffic in the Bronx.

More than once on Friday, people around Mayor Martin O'Malley tried to make that distinction. Clark, they said, comes with a street cop's mentality. Norris, now running the state police, was a guy in a suit, a smart administrator but not the kind of crime fighter who understands what happens outside office buildings and bureaucracies.

Some of this is perhaps bitterness at Norris's leaving - the mayor clearly feels blindsided, though he guarded his emotions carefully on Friday - and some of it is belief that they really have found the right guy.

In Clark's time, New York famously cut its street crime in ways once considered impossible. It starts with those street corners, he said. But Baltimore police have talked about street corners, too. How did New York clean them in ways that Baltimore hasn't?

"Turf-based policing," Clark said. "One sergeant, six detectives, two undercover police for an area, gathering intelligence, and they're held accountable for what they gather. It's the same [dealers] out there every day. How cold is it out there today? Doesn't matter, they're wearing three coats, but they keep buying. You make 'em disappear. Because they're the ones who are doing stickups, who are beating people. These guys are responsible for everything. And we know who they are."

When it was over, and Clark left City Hall to begin learning about his new city, City Councilwoman Lois Garey lingered in a nearby corridor. She said she liked what she had heard.

"When he said, `It's the same people every day,'" Garey said, "that resonated with me. Because we all know it's true. They get arrested, and they're back on the corner a few days later."

"Of course," said Councilman Robert Curran. "Look at the court dockets any day. They're packed with drug cases. The police are doing their job. And now we have the new governor talking about building more prisons. The question is, how many prisons can you build?"

"What I don't understand," Garey said, "is they talk about 55,000 drug addicts in the city. Well, how many people have left the city in the last decade? Thousands and thousands, right? Didn't any of the addicts leave?"

The short answer is yes, but the longer answer is: There are always new ones. Last October, in an incident that convulsed the city, an entire family was wiped out in a fire that police called retribution for standing up to drug dealers.

"That Dawson family incident was in my back yard," Councilwoman Pamela Carter was saying Friday. "That's what this new commissioner has to understand, that people want to help, but they're afraid. There are so many guns out there now. Every time the police look up, there are more guns in the hands of young people. Who's getting these guns for them?

"And there's no sense of morality. Kill a policeman, kill a priest, kill a child - they don't care. There's no value for life, and no sense of values instilled by families."

Certainly the new police commissioner has heard this kind of talk before. He worked the streets of the Bronx, and his father was a New York beat cop who worked patrols in Harlem for 21 years. But Carter touched on something important: Citizens want to help.

"People want to look out for each other," Garey said. "I'll tell you how it works. You've got girls from St. Michael's walking home and reporting a flasher in the neighborhood. Everybody's on the phone right away, and you've got people watching out for the girls every day when they walk home. That's a neighborhood that cares."

"Right," Curran said now. "It's not just drugs and killing, it's the quality-of-life stuff that make a community live or die."

Not to be overlooked in such gloomy talk, New York's violent crime dropped 8 percent during each of the past three years. Baltimore, Mayor O'Malley pointed out, has averaged a 10 percent drop for the same time period. That's something for the new commissioner to build on as he begins his advance on street corners.

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