Facing the first crisis of his 4-month-old administration, Mayor Martin O'Malley rallied political support yesterday as he defended himself over the abrupt departure of his police chief.
Ronald L. Daniel's resignation Thursday threatened to be racially divisive. It provoked criticism and skepticism among some African-Americans because the black commissioner was replaced by a white deputy with aggressive plans for law enforcement, Acting Commissioner Edward T. Norris.
Yesterday started with O'Malley critics on radio talk shows calling his selection of Daniel as commissioner a ruse on African-Americans. But in the end, many who had lauded the 26-year police veteran's selection four months ago were siding with O'Malley.
After many hours of urgent phone calls and meetings, the mayor appeared at a news conference with nine City Council members, mostly African-Americans, and leaders of the city's two police unions. The city's Senate delegation in Annapolis issued a joint statement of support; House delegation members expressed mixed feelings about Norris.
"This has been the toughest decision that I have ever had to make and one that caused me a great degree of personal sadness," O'Malley said. But "I promised the people of this city that we will make it safer."
Daniel resigned after refusing to agree to a New York police consultants' 120-page plan to make the city safer and reform the police department, now under its third commissioner in seven months.
Daniel met privately yesterday morning with his top-level commanders, where he told staff, "It was nice working with you. I appreciate the work you did. Please support the new commissioner."
Later, Daniel told a reporter that he had no input in the plan. "I can't support a plan that's not mine," he said, and declined to make any other comment.
O'Malley took steps yesterday to restore racial balance at the top of the department by appointing the highest-ranking African-American commander, Col. Barry Powell, as acting deputy commissioner in charge of operations.
Yet critics jumped on O'Malley -- who has enjoyed a popular start -- accusing him of deliberately setting Daniel up to fail in order to replace him with former New York Deputy Police Commissioner Edward F. Norris.
"It's all racial," said John Clinton, who owns a barbershop on Park Heights Avenue and is past president of the Pimlico Merchants Association. "It's all set up for the white boy to get the job."
O'Malley called the accusations "ludicrous," saying that it was Daniel who resigned.
"I was so insistent on this guy being my guy that I thought we could work through it," O'Malley said of Daniel. "Neither of us entered this collaborative effort thinking that it would fail."
Residents, neighborhood activists and political leaders began speculating on what O'Malley should do to repair the damage.
Critics threatened to challenge any attempt to make Norris permanent commissioner, raising concerns over recent shootings in New York, where three unarmed African-American men were shot over the past 18 months. Norris, who declined to comment and did not appear at the news conference, was director of operations for the New York department.
"I don't think it's a good idea," Constance Maddox, president of the Madison East End Improvement Association on the east side, said of Norris heading the department. "He's an outsider. It should be someone that knows Baltimore City and knows the people here."
O'Malley indicated that he would not conduct a nationwide search, saying Norris has the experience to run the department. O'Malley, however, would not say whether Norris will get the job permanently.
The goal, O'Malley said, has not changed: to bring down the city's homicide rate.
"When residents call 911, they don't say, 'Make sure you send a white officer or a blue officer or a black officer,' " O'Malley said. "The lives lost in the city every year to gunfire are poor, predominantly black citizens of this city."
Daniel has been credited with leading visible improvements in poverty-stricken, drug-infested neighborhoods in his two-month tenure. In Pigtown, one of the 10 drug areas targeted by police, people say the Cross and Carroll street corner has been cleaned up considerably in the past six weeks.
"There has been a tremendous difference in our neighborhood," said Kim Lane, executive director of the Washington Village Pigtown Neighborhood Planning Council. "Whether it's due to Daniel or O'Malley, we don't know. But things are much better."
The city, however, begins the second quarter of the year failing to slow a murder pace that for a decade has rsulted in 300 deaths a year. O'Malley's council supporters said the need to reduce the number makes them support the mayor.
"People are going to take every opportunity to make this a racial issue, and it doesn't have to be," West Baltimore Councilwoman Catherine Pugh said. "We can't keep waking up to people dead in our streets."
"There are a lot of black kids dying in the street," she added. "Everybody knows what the racial makeup of this city is. The concern is to make the city safe."
East Baltimore Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who will play a role in the selection of the next commissioner as head of the council's executive nominations committee, said he would back Norris if that's what O'Malley wanted.
"I don't have a problem with Ed Norris," Young said. "What I'm for is cleaning up the city from the homicides and the crime."
Daniel allies said yesterday that the commissioner increasingly felt that he had lost control of the department to the New York consultants, the Maple/Linder Group. O'Malley, however, said he supports the still-confidential plan recommended by the paid advisers.
"This is a plan of the mayor of Baltimore," O'Malley said. "This is not a plan to sell hot dogs or popcorn; this is really serious business."
"It's one of those life-and-death decisions that mayors get paid to make," O'Malley added. "This was a decision that had to be made."
O'Malley expressed frustration over Daniel's objections, noting that much of the foundation of the plan was detailed in a book published in October by police consultant Jack Maple, a former New York transit officer credited with reducing murders in New York, New Orleans and Newark, N.J.
The book details the so-called "zero tolerance" crime-fighting strategy that relies on computer mapping of city crime and a targeted effort to apprehend fugitives by boosting the department's warrant squad and cracking down on minor crimes to catch violent offenders.
O'Malley successfully urged Baltimore business and philanthropic leaders to pay for the Maple/Linder Group.
"Commissioner Daniel and I read the book a couple of times," O'Malley said. "The strategies have saved planeloads of people in the cities where these men have worked."
Yet African-American political leaders acknowledged that Daniel's resignation and concern over the New York shootings have eroded the trust between the mayor and segments of the city's African-American population, who make up 65 percent of the total. "The fear has always been: Will the white mayor be able to govern an African-American city and appear inclusive?" state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV said. "Moves like this cast doubt on the process."
Others remained shocked at the quickness of Daniel's departure. On Thursday, city Real Estate Officer Anthony J. Ambridge met with the commissioner over his two-year plan for Police Department space needs.
"I like Ron Daniel, but he has always butted heads with his supervisors," said Ambridge. "Everybody knows that about him."
City Councilman the Rev. Norman A. Handy, chairman of the council's Public Safety Committee, has scheduled a community forum for 7 p.m. Monday at Unity Methodist Church at Edmondson Avenue and Stricker Street. Morning radio talk show host and former state Sen. Larry Young will moderate the event.
The phone lines on Young's talk show on WOLB-AM yesterday were busy with callers upset at the Daniel move. Throughout his show, which attracts mostly African-American listeners, Young reiterated that they hold many prominent positions in Baltimore.
"This is still our town," Young said. "The City Council, the majority are African-Americans. The Board of Estimates, the majority are African-Americans. The delegates in Annapolis, the majority are African-Americans."
"Show us the plan, Mr. Mayor," Young said. "We can't have another New York. We want crime down. We have 300-plus murders a year. We don't want that. But it's the way you do it."
Meanwhile, the department continues to police the city. Col. Bert L. Shirey said meetings scheduled next week to assess the progress of cleaning up drug corners are still planned. Norris met with his staff yesterday morning and told them the pace of crime fighting "will not slow up at all."
Said Shirey: "I think the citizens need to know that the level of police service on the street will not be deterred by this. We are certainly going to move toward our primary goal: to clean this city up and reduce homicides."
Sun staff writers Eric Siegel, Allison Klein, M. Dion Thompson and Laurie Willis and the Associated Press contributed to this article.