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Norris tells of progress after 1 year


Baltimore's police commissioner marked his first year as the city's top law enforcement officer yesterday by claiming success in turning around a department once beset with infighting and struggling to curtail crime.

Edward T. Norris -- a career New York officer lured here by a new mayor who put crime-fighting at the top of his political agenda -- listed accomplishments that include fewer homicides and shootings, more murder arrests and a renewed emphasis on rooting out corruption.

Police and residents, Mayor Martin O'Malley said at a news conference yesterday, "have made a difference and saved a lot of lives." But, he said, "We are not ready to claim victory. We are not where we want to be as a city."

O'Malley pledged to keep after drug dealers until the streets are safe. "We will not fall into the trap of saying, 'Crime is inevitable. This is Baltimore, that's the way it is,' " he said. "Yes, this is Baltimore. No, this is not how it has to be."

Police officials held the celebratory news conference in front of the Western District police station as a reminder of how dangerous the city remains, despite a reported 19 percent drop in violent crime.

Although a new task force has hit west-side streets, 10 of the city's 11 homicides since April 29 have been in West Baltimore. That comes after a spate of east-side killings and the shooting of a 2-year-old boy in the head.

"I don't know if we are any better off," said the Rev. Johnny N. Golden, president of Clergy United for the Renewal of East Baltimore, which represents 120 east-side churches. "The blood is still flowing. ... We promote that Baltimore is soaring, but how can it soar if there is no area for it to bloom?"

Norris warned about using a spike in violence as a barometer.

"Overall, things are much better," he said.

Myrt Howerton, 56, who lives near the Avenue Market in West Baltimore and praised Norris for his work, handed the police commissioner a "prayer plant" and pleaded for peace.

"Do me a favor," the resident said, addressing fellow citizens. "The killing has got to stop."

But some residents say O'Malley -- who won a political victory when last year ended with fewer than 300 homicides for the first time in a decade -- has oversold an ambitious crime-fighting plan, particularly his pledge to reduce killings to 175 a year by the end of 2002.

"I think his promise to cut back on the murder rate is a promise he can't keep," Jean Yarborough, president of the Park Heights Community Association, said in an interview. "This city is not going to let him do that. There is too much violence and turf wars."

But at the same time, she said she feels safer, attributing that to the commander of the Northwestern District, Maj. John McEntee.

"We don't hear much of the gunfire, and the corners are getting cleaner," she said.

Norris' focus on the most dangerous neighborhoods, such as East Baltimore, where an extra 120 officers have driven homicides and shootings down 62 percent, has sparked new complaints that the victories come at the expense of more stable communities.

"They have driven crime to our borders," said Susan L. Noonan, president of the Butcher's Hill Community Association. Her neighborhood is just south of the Eastern District.

Noting the small army of officers to her north, Noonan said, "I hope that we get some of that attention."

Norris denied that any area is suffering because of extra resources sent to East and West Baltimore and promised to keep a strong force in high-crime neighborhoods until they are safer. "We're not leaving until this gets done," he said.

O'Malley hired Norris after winning election while promising to overhaul a police force that was split by years of discord and unable to bring down the 300-plus annual homicide toll.

Norris, credited with strategies that reduced New York's crime rate to 30-year lows, but also blamed for police abuse, became Baltimore's chief strategist.

O'Malley made him second-in-command to his new commissioner, Ronald L. Daniel. Daniel quit in April 2000 after 57 days, saying he could not agree with O'Malley on how best to fight crime.

Norris was named commissioner that month and won unanimous approval from the 19-member City Council on May 8, 2000, despite fears from some residents that civil rights would be trampled in a New York-style fight against crime.

Norris -- who speaks with a bluntness that endears him to patrol officers, and is unapologetic about his style and tactics -- noted yesterday that complaints of excessive force have dropped.

When a man interrupted yesterday's news conference to complain that officers were too quick to shoot people, an angry Norris characterized his claims as "nonsense."

His mantra during his first year -- "I want to let police be the police again" -- earned him praise from the police union.

"He has a pretty clear vision of what he wants his police department to look like," said Officer Gary McLhinney, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 3.

Through his first year, Norris emphasized his straightforward approach to crime, dismantling many programs that he believed had taken officers away from crime's front line. He and O'Malley pushed for raises for officers, at the expense of cuts and layoffs in other city agencies.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a West Baltimore Democrat who keeps a close eye on city police issues, said Norris' first year "is going extremely well." But he stressed that the pressure is on O'Malley more than the police commissioner.

"He's made this extraordinary commitment in terms of pay raises," said Rawlings. "He promised to make this not just a safe city, but a very safe city. It is key to the revival of Baltimore."

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