Hutchins draws troopers' praise

Ehrlich quickly appoints veterans affairs chief as acting superintendent

December 11, 2003|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

After the embarrassment of Col. Edward T. Norris' indictment, state troopers seemed pleased with the swift appointment yesterday of Thomas E. "Tim" Hutchins, a retired trooper and former state delegate, as acting state police superintendent.

Within hours of accepting Norris' resignation, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. appointed Hutchins, the state's secretary of veterans affairs.

"I'm here to ensure the continuity of law enforcement operations here in Maryland, and to stabilize the force," Hutchins, 58, said in a brief Annapolis news conference to announce his appointment.

Dan Poist, executive director of the State Law Enforcement Officers Labor Alliance, praised the governor's choice. "Hutchins comes to the position with internal experience and experience in Annapolis. I think he'll be great," Poist said.

The important thing, troopers and union leaders said, is that Norris resigned immediately, before causing further damage to the department's image.

"We support the governor and his decisions. And we feel Norris did the right thing in stepping down," said Kirk Daugherty, president of the Maryland Troopers Association. "We think [Hutchins will] do an excellent job."

Union leaders and troopers said it would have been hard for Norris to continue as superintendent, considering that troopers are automatically suspended without pay if they are charged with a felony.

"Whether it's a police officer or police chief, any time there's an allegation of an ethical or legal violation, it shakes a department," said Sheldon Greenberg, director of the Johns Hopkins University's Police Executive Leadership Program.

"But police officers are the most resilient people I've ever known," he said. "The troopers will weather this storm, just as they've weathered many others."

In barracks across the state, troopers tuned into broadcasts of Maryland U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio's news conference announcing Norris' indictment and relayed the news on cell phones and pagers.

Although Norris has attracted critics within the department, troopers said no one was happy to hear the news.

"You can't rejoice over this," said Michael A. Hawkins, president of the Coalition of Black State Troopers. "You don't want to see any police officer's career end this way."

Although the federal investigation focused on Norris' use of an off-the-books expense fund when he was Baltimore police commissioner, some troopers were concerned that the indictment would make the state police look bad by association. Seeing Norris in state police uniform on older video clips yesterday seemed to justify their fears.

"We have felt this cloud from the beginning," Daugherty said. "There's been a lot of concern about what would happen with this probe."

A survey by the law enforcement alliance in April showed that 60 percent of troopers believed the probe compromised Norris' credibility and about 50 percent thought it hindered his ability to lead the agency.

Ehrlich said yesterday that he would consider rehiring Norris if he is cleared of the charges. "Obviously, Secretary Hutchins is in full agreement with that view," the governor said.

Ehrlich praised Norris' work in implementing a consent decree to prevent racial profiling in traffic stops.

Hutchins, a Charles County Republican who served in the State House from 1995 to 2003, was a trooper from 1973 to 1994, when he retired as commander of the training division. He was one of the candidates Ehrlich had considered last year for the superintendent's job.

Hutchins' wife, Jacqueline A. Speelman, is a trooper who provides security to state legislators - a potential conflict of interest that union leaders felt would be resolved quickly.

"I think Tim has the integrity to handle the situation," Daugherty said.

Paul E. Schurick, Ehrlich's communications director, said that her employment was discussed with the governor yesterday but that the administration had not received a legal opinion on the issue.

Sun staff writer David Nitkin contributed to this article.

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