State stalls on its offer of troopers to help city

Pledge made in Dec. had soothed anger over departure of Norris

April 30, 2003|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

When former Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris left the force in December and joined the Maryland State Police as superintendent, he promised to dispatch a phalanx of troopers to help the city battle crime.

The offer drew praise and applause from City Hall officials and assuaged the anger of some still seething over Norris' unexpected departure. The city police administration, eager for aid, was delighted.

But little progress has been made since then, and no extra troopers have been assigned to Baltimore's crime-fighting efforts.

"I'm disappointed," said Del. Tony E. Fulton, who proposed expanding state police authority during the last legislative session but withdrew the bill at the urging of Norris and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. The legislation would have made it easier for troopers to work in the city.

"I don't understand why anybody would deny state troopers to have police powers in any jurisdiction," he said. "The bill died because the governor and Col. Norris said [they] were going to do a memorandum of understanding with the city and [they] didn't need the bill. Why isn't it happening now?"

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley - who stated in January that troopers would soon be working in Baltimore - said he didn't know why the deal apparently fell through.

"They are an administration in transition," O'Malley said of Norris and Ehrlich. "They had a tough legislative session and have tough fiscal realities to deal with. Maybe their initial desire to help has had to be tempered by their budget position."

State police officials declined to comment yesterday.

The issue of troopers patrolling city streets has been a contentious one for years, and state police have played only a small role in city law enforcement. While city police officials have sought state police help, they have wanted that assistance on their terms. Moreover, the state police have balked, saying they wanted wider latitude.

Maryland law prohibits state troopers from making most kinds of arrests and traffic stops within Baltimore limits - a restriction that can be waived by the mayor or police commissioner. But many people, including state legislators such as Fulton, have begun to reconsider the prohibition against state police working in Baltimore as drugs and violence have become pressing city concerns.

Public promise

The most recent effort to bring troopers into Baltimore has been slow, according to letters and memos between state and city police that were obtained by The Sun.

In December, Norris and Ehrlich publicly promised state help. "This is a good thing for troopers and for law enforcement, and it is equally good for Baltimore City," Ehrlich said at a news conference announcing Norris' selection as superintendent. "Troopers want to do more with regards to our state and most particularly our city."

A little more than a month later, Norris put his offer in writing to Baltimore's new police commissioner, Kevin P. Clark, who had just started in the job.

Norris started the letter informally, scratching out "Commissioner Clark" and writing "Kevin" above it.

"Maryland State Police can provide you with immediate help," Norris wrote. "By granting full police authority to state troopers in Baltimore, the police presence in the city would immediately increase by five percent, due to the [200] ... troopers who live there. My offer of assistance also includes placing troopers on patrol with city officers and assigning additional troopers to the warrant apprehension unit and gun squad."

Norris signed the letter "Eddie."

The next day, Clark responded with a specific request for 34 troopers and five chemists to fill city slots.

The commissioner wanted to put seven troopers in a regional auto theft task force; seven in narcotics; seven in homicide; seven in the Warrant Apprehension Task Force; and six to work in a program for troubled youths. The chemists would work in the crime laboratory. (Several state troopers already work on city task forces.)

There appeared to be little progress during negotiations until March 13 when another city police official wrote to a deputy secretary at the state police. The city official, Kristen Mahoney, wrote that the city was withdrawing its request for chemists.

More telling was Mahoney's writing that the city would not grant broad police powers to the 200 troopers who live in Baltimore - noting that Norris, as city police commissioner, had turned down a similar offer from the previous state police superintendent. Mahoney reiterated the request for 34 troopers.

Two weeks later, the state police responded, saying that Clark and Norris needed to "meet and discuss the availability of resources and related deployment plans."

That meeting has not taken place, according to top-ranking city police officials.

Expanding the state police role in Baltimore has raised concerns among top city police officials who have said that state troopers lack the sensitivity and training to do police work in an urban environment. In addition, state and city police cannot directly communicate with each other over police radios.

A note of irony

Former State Police Superintendent David B. Mitchell - whose request to give troopers arrest powers in Baltimore was rebuffed by Norris - said that the new superintendent probably wanted to help his former comrades in the city. But after taking over the state agency of about 1,700 troopers, Norris likely realized he did not have the resources, Mitchell said.

"He's made a promise that he's finding very difficult to keep," Mitchell said. "I think the superintendent came on board not understanding a lot of the constraints that the state police operate under. He's on the receiving end of an argument that I received from him. It's ironic."

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