Norris criticizes `racial climate' he says he endured in city

February 11, 2003|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THE INCOMING police commissioner of Baltimore, Kevin P. Clark, will skate through confirmation hearings this month. Who says so? The former commissioner, Edward T. Norris, who left town to become state police superintendent. The reason? According to Norris, it's about race.

The subject gnaws at Norris, and at the city. In a couple of lengthy conversations before his anticipated confirmation as head of the state police, Norris blasted some city officials for creating a "destructive, painful racial climate" he says he had to endure in Baltimore.

What set him off now, he says, were two remarks: one by Council President Sheila Dixon on the morning Clark was introduced at City Hall. And one, that same day, by Clark himself.

"Did you hear it?" Norris asked in a lengthy telephone interview. "Did you hear what Dixon said about race?"

A reporter had asked Dixon if she thought Clark would have a tough confirmation by the City Council. Dixon answered, "Being an African-American in the New York City Police Department, and moving through the ranks so quickly, he must be an extraordinary person."

To Norris, whose confirmation as police commissioner three years ago was an ordeal, Dixon's response was an admission of a double standard -- that, in a majority-black city, with a majority-black council, a black nominee will get an easier time than a white one.

Asked about it the next day, Dixon said, Norris "is taking it out of context. What double standard? He was approved by the City Council, 19 to nothing. I was trying to say, here's an African-American man [Clark] in a majority-white city in a majority-white police department, and he rose quickly. He must be very committed. Where's the double standard? We're not going to treat this guy [Clark] any differently than Norris was treated. Was Norris talking during a full moon? Do men get PMS?"

Three years after Norris' initial hour of discontent, and weeks after his abrupt decision to leave Baltimore, Dixon's remark reflected a wish to move on. But Norris, sensitive about criticism that he deserted the city, recalled grillings related as much to race as to police work -- grillings that led, he says, to his leaving, and should be remembered when the next commissioner steps in.

What Dixon remembers is the timing of Norris' confirmation hearings, and the language of New York policing.

Norris, brought here from the New York Police Department, replaced Ronald L. Daniel, who lasted only 57 days as commissioner. Daniel is black. Norris, who is white, was nominated by the brand-new mayor, Martin O'Malley, who happens also to be white. Some council members saw a racial pattern. Some were also concerned about a phrase, much in use by New York police and much talked about during the campaign for mayor: zero tolerance.

On that phrase, and around those racial patterns, Norris took hours of pointed questions. Zero tolerance, its supporters said, meant no tolerance of so-called nuisance crimes such as loitering. But its opponents branded it a veiled campaign to target minorities.

"When I had my first legislative budget hearing in Annapolis," Norris said, referring to his new state police duties, "it was thrilling. We talked about the budget. In the city, we'd talk about the racial composition of my command staff. If it was a hearing about the budget, or about crime, we'd talk about race. It pervaded everything I did in that department, and it got so tiresome."

To which Dixon responds: "When he came in, there were definitely some issues. He came at a rough time. Daniel was in and out so fast it looked like a farce. Then, the talk about zero tolerance. People had different perceptions on that issue. To some of us, it was disturbing. It sounded like racial profiling."

To Norris, Commissioner-designate Clark made a similar remark the day he was introduced, saying that police already knew who the criminals were, and would pursue them.

"Don't get me wrong," Norris said. "Clark is eminently qualified to be commissioner. But if I had made a remark like that, I'd have been [criticized]. That's the double standard. I was tortured on race every day for three years."

Are there racial considerations in city politics? Of course. Race is the American open wound, exploited by racists and other idiots of every color. Was Norris' experience in Baltimore an example of racism, or a City Council trying to get things right?

Asked about it, O'Malley said last week, "Taking [Norris] through so many hearings was unprecedented, yes. But that was more my fault than anybody's, because of my first choice [Daniel] to be commissioner. But, after that, I don't think the council got in his way. They gave him every benefit of the doubt. They approved him unanimously. They always gave him the money he wanted -- for the department, and for himself. And then the Board of Estimates passed the amendment to his contract for him to stay.

"In general," said O'Malley, "I thought the council was very deferential to him, and very supportive of my prerogative as mayor, in bringing him in."

But Norris' remarks will hang over the council when Kevin Clark's confirmation hearings open in two weeks.

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