Black leaders call for talks


After a major shake-up in the Baltimore Police Department's top ranks, several of the city's African-American leaders called yesterday for a meeting with Mayor Martin O'Malley and his police commissioner and demanded that they more fully explain the abrupt changes.

City Councilman Norman A. Handy Sr. also said he would introduce a council resolution tomorrow calling for O'Malley and Commissioner Edward T. Norris to testify before the council's public safety subcommittee, which Handy leads.

O'Malley's spokesman, Tony White, said that the mayor and the commissioner would testify at any hearings, and that O'Malley would answer questions on the matter tomorrow during a scheduled lunch with council members.

Black leaders said they were particularly upset and perplexed over the removal Friday of the department's second-in-command, Deputy Police Commissioner Barry W. Powell, the force's highest-ranking African-American.

Handy and state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, who led the push yesterday for a meeting with the mayor, said they also want to know more about the removal of three other police commanders.

"The information we have received seems insufficient for the action that was taken," Handy said. "Barry Powell was the commander in charge of day-to-day operations of the department. ... Barry Powell until [Friday] was, in effect, the man handling the success the commissioner can claim. Suddenly, without any documentation, without any conversation, he is persona non grata."

Norris said Friday he was making the changes because he was "not satisfied" with the commanders' efforts to reduce city crime. During the past 42 days, more than 40 homicides have occurred -- a pace of violence that could endanger Norris' efforts to reduce killings.

O'Malley has set a goal of fewer than 175 homicides next year. Last year, the city had 262 homicides -- the first time in a decade that Baltimore recorded fewer than 300.

Police officials said Norris was growing frustrated with commanders who seemed unwilling to take steps to reduce crime in recent months.

"Too many people in the city -- many of them kids -- are dying," Norris said Friday.

But Handy and other African-American leaders said they were not satisfied with Norris' explanation for Powell's dismissal.

African-American leaders also said yesterday that they did not understand why the language changed so quickly. Powell, Norris and O'Malley stood together during a news conference Tuesday trumpeting Norris' first anniversary as commissioner and their success in reducing crime.

"How can you say it's [a question of] performance when a week ago this man was standing right next to you?" Mitchell said.

But White said yesterday that the news conference might have helped speed up the changes.

Although Norris continued to express concern about the recent spate of violence -- especially in the Western District, where the news conference was held -- other commanders did not seem so alarmed, White said.

"It just didn't seem like everyone realized that we were losing ground," White said. "It was an anniversary celebration, not a victory celebration."

African-American leaders also expressed concern about the removal of Col. James L. Hawkins, another African-American who conducted a widely criticized internal sting operation this year that focused on a take-home police car.

That incident also drew in Powell, who, some high-ranking police sources said, participated in the sting -- an allegation Powell has denied.

Norris alluded to those internal distractions Friday, saying he wanted his "agency to focus outside."

Also Friday, Norris dismissed Col. Robert C. Novak, who ran the department's patrol division, and Maj. Dawn Jessa, who headed the communications unit. Both are white.

Maj. Robert M. Stanton, who headed the department's homicide unit, is taking over Hawkins' job overseeing the agency's criminal investigation division. Stanton is white. Maj. Kenneth Blackwell, an African-American, will head the department's patrol division. Blackwell had been Novak's chief of staff.

Powell has said he would retire, and the other ousted commanders are expected to do the same, rather than face demotion to lieutenant.

The African-American leaders also said they did not want Baltimore to become "NYPD South," a reference directed at Norris and several commanders he brought with him from the New York force.

Norris ran the day-to-day operations of the New York Police Department before joining Baltimore's force last year.

Handy held a meeting about the shake-up early yesterday at his church, Unity United Methodist in West Baltimore. It was attended by several city and state African-American leaders. Among those who attended were Mitchell, state Sen. Joan Carter Conway and City Council members Melvin L. Stukes, Helen Holton and Bernard C. "Jack" Young.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings did not attend the meeting, but said he wanted to know more about the dismissals. He also said that O'Malley had a clear mandate from voters to aggressively tackle crime and would reserve judgment until he had "more facts."

"If we don't get ahold of this current spate of violence, all the gains we had last year will be wiped away," Rawlings said.

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