A career and legacy suffer under accusations

Profile: Criminal charges against Norris may be remembered more than his reputation as a reform-driven leader.

December 11, 2003|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Edward T. Norris, a blunt yet charming New York police commander, swept into Baltimore in early 2000 promising to refocus the city Police Department on crime-fighting, boost the agency's sagging morale and root out corrupt officers.

Three years later, when Norris left the city force to become head of the Maryland State Police, Baltimore's crime rates had dropped and yearly homicide totals had consistently been held below 300 for the first time in a decade. And Norris had attracted national attention for criticizing the federal government's efforts on fighting terrorism.

But yesterday's federal indictment charging Norris, 43, with stealing more than $20,000 from the city force threatens to destroy his police career and besmirch the law-and-order legacy he had been building in Maryland and New York.

"Everything else will be lost, and I think this may well be what people who do not know him, or did not work for him closely, will remember," said John McEntee, a former deputy commissioner under Norris who retired this year after briefly acting as police chief. "He did a lot of good things for the Police Department and the city. But I can't help but think [the indictment] will affect how people think of Eddie Norris in the long run."

The son of a hard-charging New York City police officer, Norris grew up in a Brooklyn neighborhood similar to South Baltimore. Although he seemed destined for police work - some of his most vivid memories are of his father leaving the house to go on patrol - he said in several interviews last year that he dreamed of being a doctor.

As a student, he excelled in math and science. He graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School, a magnet school, and starred in sports. He was a running back and linebacker on his high school football team and went on to play for two years at the University of Rochester. He was also an avid amateur boxer.

Struggling to pay tuition, he left college after two years and joined the New York Police Department in 1980. He eventually earned a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from St. John's University.

Known as an aggressive officer who enjoyed making "collars," he quickly ascended the ranks. In 1994, when a new regime took over One Police Plaza - NYPD headquarters - and proposed revamping the agency's crime-fighting tactics, top commanders quickly recognized Norris as one of the agency's rising stars.

He joined the staff of Jack Maple, a former transit police officer who had become a top-ranking commander and architect of the city's aggressive policing tactics.

For two years, Norris was Maple's pupil and errand-runner. Norris, whose first marriage ended in divorce, met his current wife, Kathryn, while buying new shirts for his boss. He and Kathryn have a young son.

In 1996, he survived an NYPD housecleaning because he impressed new commissioner Howard Safir, who promoted Norris to deputy commissioner of operations to run the agency's weekly crime-trend meetings. Those sessions were known as ComStat, a centerpiece of the new police tactics.

During the next four years, crime in New York dropped substantially.

"He was smart and hardworking," Safir said of Norris in an interview this week. "He understood what had to be done, and he did it. He was the chief strategist for the NYPD. He understands crime reduction. ... Eddie is one of the smartest law enforcement strategists that I've dealt with."

By late 1999, Norris was growing restless in his job, and, some associates say, he was pragmatic. He realized that he might lose his position under a new boss - Safir was soon to leave the force - and he needed to make a name for himself elsewhere if he hoped to eventually return to One Police Plaza and take the reins of the NYPD.

His dream, he had told friends, was to be New York's top officer.

Norris turned to Maple, then a private crime consultant who was working for Baltimore's new mayor, Martin O'Malley, who had made reducing crime the centerpiece of his campaign.

In taking a police job in Baltimore, Norris knew the going could be tough - the department's morale was low, and annual homicide totals had been above 300 for a decade. In 1999, 305 people were killed and another 1,033 people were shot.

Norris was hired as second-in-command under Commissioner Ronald L. Daniel, but he was soon catapulted to the top job when Daniel resigned in March 2000.

For the next three years, Norris and O'Malley presented the image of an energetic, youthful crime-fighting duo who were determined to tackle some of the city's worst problems.

With the mayor's support, Norris employed tactics he brought from New York, establishing both ComStat and a warrant squad. The new commissioner flooded chronic crime areas in East and West Baltimore with extra officers to quash violence.

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