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by Peter Moskos

July 29, 2008

My Take on Commissionar Ed Norris

Why beat around the bush? Here's what I think about Ed Norris as commissioner.

Like I already wrote: I think he was a good commissioner. Not as good a commissioner as he thinks he is, but then who is? I think he was better than the guy that came before and the guy that after him.

When Norris came in, the goal was to reduce homicides to 175. Ultimately he failed. Then he quit. Then he got convicted.

Norris likes saying how he led the nation in crime decline every year. Errr, kind of, sort of, but, no. Not really. But it says so in Wikipeadia! Yeah, right next to "citation needed." First of all, there's no official stat on crime decline, so it depends how you measure it. Let's take murder. I like murder because it's fun and easy (to count, that is).

Year --- Baltimore Murders
2000 --- 262
2001 --- 259
2002 --- 253

Norris took over in March, 2000. That was the first year in a decade that Baltimore murders dropped below 300. It was a big deal. I even got a medal (we all did). Norris deserves credit. He did things that should have been done a lot early: put cops where the crime is, clear up cold-cases, talk about crime prevention, help get cops a raise, and try and get guns off the streets. He had the right ideas. He still does.

Since 2002, after Norris, murders are back up. In 2007 there were 282 murders. Like I said, Norris was doing something right. I'd guess he prevented about 30 murders a year as commissioner. That's more than I prevented last year.

But a big decline? Well, not really. The murder rate (that's murders per 100,000 population--don't forget, Baltimore was losing population this whole time) didn't go down at all between 2000 and 2002! And when Norris couldn't get the murder rate down any more, he quit. Well, there's a longer story, perhaps for another time.

Biggest decline in the nation? No way. Let's take New York City as just one example.

Year --- NYC Murders
2000 --- 667
2001 --- 649
2002 --- 587

New York's murder rate dropped more than 10% when Baltimore, under Norris, was stagnating. And this is after murders in New York had already gone down by two-thirds (the so called "low-hanging fruit").

The problem wasn't Norris's vision. And by and large the rank-and-file, myself included, supported him. His problem was implementing his policies.

Ultimately my job was judged by arrest number and not crime prevented. I would have loved to have been brought into the district-level problem-solving meeting and asked how I thought we could do a better job? I have ideas. But that's not how it works. In police departments, ideas come only from the top.

I'm telling you, his "plan," despite what he wants to believe, didn't change my day-to-day patrol job one bit. Is that his fault? Yes and no. I don't blame him personally. But as the man in charge, well, it is his problem.

The weak link is middle management--the 4 layers in the chain-of-command between the commissioner and the patrol officer. Middle management believes, in this case for very good reason, that they'll outlast this outsider boss. Just kiss ass, say yes, play nice, stay out of trouble, and hope for promotion. Meanwhile cops like me, at the bottom, go about and do their job same as it ever was.

I wanted to write my book on the great crime drop in Baltimore. Too bad it didn't happen.

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