Edward T. Norris was unlike anything Baltimore had seen when he became the city's police commissioner in 2000. Shaped like a fire hydrant, the swashbuckling former New York police commander spoke bluntly and could be found as often on patrol as in headquarters.
Respected by the rank-and-file and by neighborhood leaders, Norris oversaw a significant drop in homicides and other violent crime during his two-year tenure. That would surely have been his legacy if not for a scandal that I helped expose.
In 2002, I was covering the city police beat for The Baltimore Sun when I unearthed the existence of a little-known expense account controlled by the police commissioner's office. My stories raised questions about Norris' spending habits and whether he had been wisely handling the city's money.
A few months later, federal prosecutors and agents got involved, and Norris was indicted on corruption charges. The indictment alleged he spent about $20,000 of the city's money on personal expenses, ranging from lingerie for girlfriends and liquor to expensive meals and trips. Norris was also indicted on a count of filing a false statement on a mortgage application related to a loan from his father to buy a house in Baltimore.
After pleading guilty in March 2004 to two felony charges — conspiring to obtain the city money by through fraud and filing a false tax return — he was sentenced to six months in federal prison.
After prison, Norris resurfaced on radio, now co-hosting the Norris & Long Show on 105.7 FM The Fan.
On Tuesday, Norris is publishing a memoir, "Way Down in the Hole," a title borrowed from the theme song of David Simon's "The Wire" HBO series, which chronicled policing, crime and drugs in Baltimore (Norris played a homicide unit supervisor on the show.)
I sat down with the 57-year-old radio host and Carroll County resident over cigars and scotch to discuss his time as commissioner, prison, his life and his new book, which was co-written with former Sun columnist Kevin Cowherd.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Why did you write this? Why now?
I'm out of prison 12 years. That's how long I have been at the radio station. The general sentiment in Baltimore was that I got f-ed. In town still, I get treated really well. People call me "commissioner." They generally think I got f-ed. The government had its time to tell the story. Now I wanted to tell mine. I have a great job. I have a decent relationship with my ex-wife, my son. People don't realize I had 20 years on NYPD. I did so many things in New York that people don't know about. I wanted to tell the story.
So, it's about vindication?
I guess vindication. I do feel I recovered a good amount of my reputation over the last 12 years. So there is definitely that. But it's part vindication. David Simon has really helped me. I wanted to thank some people, too.
There is a national conversation going on about policing right now and law enforcement tactics that may have fueled protests in response to the deaths of Freddie Gray in Baltimore and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, etc. Riots. When you came to Baltimore, I recall you pushing an aggressive style of policing. Do you think it has gone too far and contributed to the strife?
I don't think I do. What happened is, I was doing real policing, strong policing, muscular policing, whatever you call it. But we did it in a focused way. After I left the administration they felt they could continue to do what I did because they had watched me doing it, and they couldn't. And then they started locking up people. We were locking up people for minor violations but with an eye for solving a major crime. They were just doing it for the sake of generating numbers, arresting themselves out of a crime problem. But it soured community relations.
Homicides now are up. The community is distrustful. You think Commissioner Kevin Davis has a harder job than you did?
When I came in, the city was so violent that people wanted it, they welcomed us. But he is in a situation where the public doesn't trust the police, and it is very violent. He is in a much tougher spot than I was.
In your book, you say you were treated unfairly, but you pleaded guilty. You signed the statement of offense under oath. You admitted to spending the money on yourself. How do you square that with what's in the book?
Yes, I have been unfairly treated. I didn't steal any money. I made myself vulnerable over the mortgage thing. I'm not asking for sympathy for this. I never saw any of this [money]. I never saw the receipts. I would go somewhere and people would say it was taken care of. And I accepted that ... If they didn't have the mortgage fraud on me, I was going to go to trial. I didn't steal anything. They had me on the mortgage. I signed the mortgage letter that it was a gift. And then I repaid it, and it was a loan. I could have faced 30 years.
It would have been an ugly trial, with the women, affairs. There were six identified in the indictment. Did that factor into your decision to plead?
It was embarrassing enough. I wouldn't take a guilty plea to a crime I didn't commit. But they had me on the mortgage. I felt like I had no chance at all. I didn't have the money to defend myself. A lawyer told me it would cost me half a million to put up an effective defense. I wasn't a Wall Street guy.
Who do you blame for it all, then?
The prosecutors. They are terrifying. When they ask you if you are taking a plea voluntarily. Come on. They are doing it with a gun in your mouth ... I take responsibility for doing stupid things and hanging out with women I shouldn't have been hanging out with. But that's not a federal crime, nor a state crime. Bad behavior, sure. But it wasn't what was portrayed. People have troubled marriages. People do stupid things. But my behavior wasn't fueled by the fund.
But if you had been more straight-jacketed and not done some of the things would it have come down to this?
I wouldn't have been interesting. I look back at it, my behavior. Going out. Drinking. Being brash. It all made me an attractive target.
Some of the most moving parts of the book concern your time in prison and how you bonded with your fellow inmates. Did they change your perspective on criminals?
I walked out of there saying, like, this whole indictment, this whole experience, it has given me a better, more accurate perspective on life and how easy it is to have your life extinguished because of careerism, political ambition, whatever. I think our federal system is bad.
The impression of people I met inside is that half should never get out, but the other half shouldn't be in there to begin with. Some guys were screwed. One old guy got screwed in a stock thing. He was one of nicest people I ever met. I just think there is something really wrong. I got a different perspective living with these guys.
Would it have changed policing strategies?
Maybe. But not much. I wasn't big on the drug war anyway. I was really focused on fugitive enforcement, guns and violent crime. You are never going to stop the war on drugs. I was always pushing the guys to bring me guns, the bad guys.
When you look back at your time in Baltimore, what is the first thing that comes to mind?
The best part of my time here was that people still recognize impact I made. I get it all the time, that the city was safer when I was here, particularly [comments] from African-American residents in Baltimore. It was one of my darkest days. I was at BWI and having a drink. I went to pay and the waitress was like, 'No. It's on me. When you were here I could walk to my car at night.'
Del Quentin Wilber has been a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post, Bloomberg News and the Los Angeles Times.
About the book
"Way Down in the Hole: The Meteoric Rise, Tragic Fall and Ultimate Redemption of America's Most Promising Cop." Ed Norris with Kevin Cowherd. Apprentice House, $26.99. Publishing May 2.