Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris gave the City Council a remarkably blunt, impassioned defense last night of his removal of two high-ranking black officers, saying the Police Department was sent into a "tailspin" in its war on crime for months because of a distracting "culture of vengeance" within the ranks.
"Let's all stop the nonsense here tonight," Norris said in a packed City Council chamber, taking a defiant tone at one point after a barrage of questions from council members. "When [officers] don't behave in my agency, people die."
At a time when Mayor Martin O'Malley has been trumpeting the city's declining violent crime rate as the centerpiece of his comeback strategy for Baltimore, Norris offered a remarkably critical assessment of his own force in a city he said is "still one of the most dangerous" in the nation.
"We've done a lot of backsliding in the last four months," he said, noting a recent spate of nearly 40 murders in 40 days.
The city, he said, is on pace for at least 300 murders this year, well above last year's total of 262 and an unwelcome milestone for an administration with a goal of no more than 175 murders in 2002.
"Many members of my department were still living in last year," Norris said. "The department has become very distracted by a lot of internal strife. ... We have people reverting back to old behaviors."
Norris placed much of the blame at the feet of former Deputy Police Commissioner Barry W. Powell and Col. James L. Hawkins Jr., the two black officers whose removals were announced Friday, along with those of two white commanders.
Just three days before, Norris and Powell stood side by side at a news conference, touting the commissioner's first year in office.
The removals sparked criticism with racial overtones from some elected officials, some of whom had previously made an issue of O'Malley hiring a white commissioner to preside over the police force in a majority-black city.
Norris met privately with four council members Monday afternoon and was asked in a council resolution that night to publicly explain the dismissals.
Striking an assertive tone, Norris made clear that hirings and firings of high-level officers were his authority alone, as dictated by the law. He defended his record of hiring and promoting minorities, and said he would do whatever he feels necessary to achieve the goal of reduced crime in Baltimore.
"Anybody who'd like to make that decision needs to be sitting in the police commissioner's chair," said Norris, sucking on a breath mint while seated at a table facing the council dais, flanked by members of his command staff. "I have one mission here: to save lives."
Throughout much of the 75-minute session, a meeting marked by sometimes testy exchanges of questions and answers with council members, Norris went on to paint an increasingly unflattering portrait of Powell and Hawkins as distracting elements in his department.
Much of his criticism of the two focused on a sting Hawkins conducted in December, allegedly with Powell's knowledge, to determine whether another officer was taking a police cruiser home to Carroll County. The sting became a public embarrassment for the Police Department, compounded by the recent release of a staged 911 call made by Hawkins in which he disguised his voice, using a speaking style that some critics derided as racially demeaning.
Norris, decrying an atmosphere of "retaliatory behavior," said it appeared the two tried to "set up" the officer to be fired.
"I don't need people out there settling scores in people's back yards," Norris told the council.
"If this didn't happen, we'd probably have the same command staff in place. But because this silliness went on, forcing our department into a tailspin for months, I was forced to make a change."
Norris said he told his command staff that they need to "behave like grown-ups" and focus on reducing crime rather than on internal politics. "If this nonsense goes on any longer, I'm going to make a whole lot of changes."
Norris said Powell and Hawkins came to the defense of a lieutenant recently caught working at an after-hours club while on duty.
"When he was caught, they came in and told me what a great guy he was, and this isn't right, and he's a good guy. He ain't a good guy in our eyes, and I don't want him in my department," Norris said.
Lt. John M. Mack, a 17-year veteran, was ordered to desk duty and relieved of his gun and badge.
"Is this what you want, everyone?" Norris asked. "You want someone being paid by the Baltimore City police working in a whorehouse on duty, not policing their district?"
Powell and Hawkins could not be reached for comment last night. But Powell, who ran day-to-day police operations and was the highest-ranking African-American on the force, has vehemently denied any involvement in the sting and has called his removal an "injustice."
The mood of the session was tense and at times racially charged. One member, Councilman Melvin L. Stukes, a South Baltimore Democrat, criticized Norris for not being more conscious of the racial sensitivity of the dismissals.
Councilwoman Agnes B. Welch, a West Baltimore Democrat, told Norris she felt the head of the Police Department should take responsibility for any problems, a comment that drew a smattering of applause from the audience.
Norris responded: "That's why I did this, ma'am."
The only strong public support for Norris came from two white council members, John L. Cain and Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr., both Southeast Baltimore Democrats.
"We should let the commissioner run his department," D'Adamo said.
About 40 minutes into the session, a frustrated, increasingly impatient Norris said: "This has gone far enough here. I've told you what the story is."
He said his decision on the removals was "real simple."
Then, as the session neared the 60-minute mark, at 6 p.m., Norris began looking at his watch and shifting in his seat, saying at one point that he had to leave soon.
Supporters of the two removed officers, including radio talk show host Larry Young and Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, a West Baltimore Democrat, were in attendance.
"The bottom line is, he came and told the council, 'Go to hell' and 'I gotta go,' all in the same breath," Mitchell said. "If his budget was being held up, I bet you he'd find some time."
Norris declined to say afterward where he needed to go, calling it a "private" matter, but he was delayed again when O'Malley summoned him to a closed-door meeting immediately after the council session.
Mayoral spokesman Tony White would not say what was discussed in the meeting between O'Malley and Norris, but he praised the commissioner's performance in what he called a "tense situation" last night.
"He had gone through a grilling during the confirmation, and this was like the confirmation process revisited almost, but I think he handled it well," White said.
As for Norris' assertive tone, White said: "To have his decisions second-guessed in that manner, he needed to present himself in a firm and confident manner with his command staff sitting there. ... He can't appear to be wavering."
Sun staff writers Kimberly A. C. Wilson and Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this article.