Innocent until ...

December 11, 2003

HIS WAS a contrite mea culpa for his "failings as a human being." But former Baltimore police Commissioner Edward T. Norris' August 2002 letter of public apology for his mishandling of a police discretionary fund didn't stop the questions. His repayment of $7,663 in suspect expenses didn't stop a federal investigation. His assertions that he did nothing illegal didn't keep the governor of Maryland from accepting his resignation as state police superintendent after a federal grand jury indicted him yesterday.

Colonel Norris, who abruptly left the city police force at the end of 2002 to join the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., entered state police headquarters already under suspicion. A federal grand jury began investigating his use of the off-the-books city police fund to pay for trips to New York, steak dinners in Manhattan and other questionable expenses.

The probe undercut his efforts to hold state police commanders accountable in a new and precise way - as he had done successfully in the city. Suspecting he wasn't long for the job, some on the force figured they could wait him out. Had Colonel Norris fought to stay at the helm, his leadership would have been in question and the morale of the state police's 2,600 men and women at risk.

Only a court can decide the matter of Colonel Norris' guilt or innocence, but his professional reputation has been sullied.

In 2000, Baltimore residents put their trust in this young police commander from New York who shook up the department, introduced a 21st century style of policing here and brought a computer-generated system of accountability to crimefighting. Mayor Martin O'Malley took some heat over his choice of a white commissioner in a majority-black city, but he was convinced Ed Norris was the man for the job. During Commissioner Norris' tenure, the city registered a significant decrease in violent crime and Baltimore's homicide rate dropped below the cursed 300 mark.

But then Sun reporter Del Quentin Wilber reported on his use of the expense account, detailing $159,000 in expenses, a fraction of which financed the high-priced outings in New York.

No one could doubt Commissioner Norris' commitment to public safety, but as he offered one pathetic excuse after another about the use of the account, the city ordered up an audit. The mayor assigned the city finance director responsibility over the fund, established during the Great Depression to help police in need and funded through donations and contributions.

Both Mayor O'Malley and Governor Ehrlich have reasons to be sorry about the Norris affair, but they must not use his troubles as fodder for political snipes. At this juncture, Colonel Norris had no choice but to resign. In his public apology to city residents a year ago, Commissioner Norris said that he felt compelled to write the letter because the murder of "a courageous police officer" had reminded him that all his actions as police commissioner "should be above reproach." Marylanders have the right to expect no less.

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