New man in blue; Norris seeks to strike the delicate balance between tough policing and citizens' rights


A couple of weeks ago, an article appeared in Perspective under the headline, "Is O'Malley ignoring the past?" It consisted of an introduction written by me and excerpts from a report on the urban riots of the 1960s.

The report was released by the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, a bipartisan group created by then-President Lyndon B. Johnson. The president wanted to know what caused the riots and how to prevent more from occurring.

A re-examination of the report was timely because Mayor Martin O'Malley and Baltimore's new police commissioner, Edward T. Norris, advocate aggressive police tactics to bring down Baltimore's homicide rate, which has been stuck at more than 300 a year for the last decade.

Back in 1968, the commission concluded that seething social problems rooted in race and class were responsible for the riots. Virtually all of the disorders occurred in predominantly black neighborhoods and many were triggered by incidents involving white police officers. Consequently, the report warned against aggressive police tactics that could lead to urban disorders.

Before Norris became Baltimore's top cop, he was a high-ranking official in the New York Police Department, where he advised Commissioner Howard Safir on anti-crime strategies.

The NYPD credits its tough, zero-tolerance policing for bringing down crime. But zero tolerance is also blamed for creating racial unrest after police killed three unarmed men in 13 months and reports of police brutality surfaced.

The day after the article appeared, I got an angry phone call from a reader. She told me that I should have been fired for running it. She said the article would "only stir up the blacks," who'd read it before they went to church on Sunday morning and they would come out ready to riot.

The article also prompted a call from Mayor O'Malley, who reaffirmed his commitment to bring down the homicide rate. O'Malley said he does not intend to repeat the mistakes of the past. He said he will "police the police" if that's what it takes to prevent abuses and urged me to talk to Norris about his plans to revamp the department.

On Wednesday, I met the top man in blue. He is confident that he can bring the best part of zero tolerance to Baltimore without causing a citizen backlash.

"If you look back on every major police scandal, whether it involves drugs or brutality, the common thread is a lack of supervision -- a high ranking person was not working," Norris explained. "Last weekend, there were majors working on the streets of every district in Baltimore and there was a deputy commissioner on patrol. That's the key to keeping the officers in line."

Under Norris' crime-fighting plan, district commanders also undergo closer scrutiny. The commissioner meets regularly with the district commanders to review crime reports using a high-tech approach. Crimes in each police district are flashed onto a giant computer screen and district commanders are questioned about what's happening on their turf and what they're doing to counter crime.

Norris said this approach holds the district commanders accountable. It also gives them an overview of what's happening in the entire city and enables them to share crime-fighting information.

"The purpose of the meetings is to drill down a couple layers and ask the hard questions of our commanders," Norris said. "We want to know what happened, what caused the shootings -- is it a drug dispute, is it a domestic dispute? -- and then get to the root."

So what's different about what Norris is doing here and zero tolerance in New York?

"The [O'Malley] administration's openness in terms of its relationship with the media," Norris explained, adding: "And I intend to be very open with the community."

Earlier this month, the mayor unveiled a blueprint for fighting crime. It concluded that past policing strategies contributed to violence and public hostility and suspicion. The surprisingly candid report included a survey answered by 80 percent of the 3,200-member police force. More than 80 percent of the responding officers said that their own disrespect of people "causes unnecessary escalation of force." And about half said they believed that officers did not have the verbal or tactical skills to defuse potentially violent situations.

The "pro-active" kind of policing Norris advocates is bound to increase police-citizen contacts. So, I asked Norris if the officers would be given more training before his strategy is fully implemented.

"We can't wait until we train the entire police department because we'll have another bloody year," Norris explained. "We'll conduct the operation plan and have simultaneous training to teach officers how to deal with the public."

Norris conceded that even under the best of circumstances, there is only so much the police can do in the fight against crime.

"We need help from the community," Norris said. "The people who live in the neighborhood know who the crooks are, who the drug dealers are; we need information from the community and to get that, we need them to trust us.

"And they must remember, every time they see us rousting people on a corner, it does not mean we are harassing them, we're probably answering a call. Don't assume that every time we stop somebody on the street it's for the wrong reason. We don't always get it wrong. The vast majority of cops do the right thing."

Is it possible to have an aggressive police department that does not trample citizens' rights? We'll see.

One thing is certain -- the body count will continue to climb if nothing is done. Violence has become the norm in some city neighborhoods. And its been that way for more than a generation.

Baltimore's murder rate started to spiral in 1968 when 259 people were slain -- a 26 percent increase over the 205 slayings recorded in 1967 and more than double the 114 murders posted in 1962.

The sad truth is that O'Malley is addressing a problem that three mayors before him chose to ignore. The 1968 riot report told us about the poverty, hopeless and despair confronting many blacks in our nation's cities. Now, 32-years later we're hoping the police alone can cure a public health problem -- an epidemic of homicides.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad