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BALTIMORE – The death of Freddie Gray – and the riots and public backlash that’s followed – has placed the national spotlight on Baltimore’s history of racial tension.
Ed Norris knows all about that history, and what it means to the city and its residents. As the city's police commissioner from 2000 to 2002, Norris helped usher in the first decline in the murder rate in a decade, before resigning in disgrace and spending six months in federal prison.
Norris still maintains his innocence. He also still knows the streets of Baltimore. Now a radio personality and actor, Norris sat down with America Tonight to talk about the root of Baltimore's rage and where the police went wrong. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.
How would you describe what you saw on Monday as a former police commissioner?
I think it’s pretty simple. It looks like one of the great cities in America lost control of its streets. It’s pure and simple. I don’t know how else to put it. They just lost control of the city [that night].
How did we get to this point in Baltimore? Why Baltimore? Why now?
Well, I think there’s no secret there’s been long-simmering tensions in the city between the police and the community. If you remember, when I was here I worked really hard to improve that. I had a very contentious confirmation hearing, and I knew I was going to take a very aggressive stance on crime and I knew [I had] the support of the community and of the ministers and everyone who lived here. But I think there's been some things in the last decade that have been done perhaps improperly that have caused a lot of tension between the community and the police, and I think we saw it had very little to do with Freddie Gray and more to do with a long-simmering animosity.
Where did that animosity come from?
Oh boy. I mean, there's been some noteworthy cases of the police and the community, but I think there was a period after I left when the next administration – or the second after I left – they started their form of zero tolerance, which I didn't employ when I was here. They started locking people up in big numbers for minor things, like drinking on the stoop, playing dice in their own property and all kinds of crimes that we ignored. That’s not what it was about and it served no purpose, except to make people angry. And I think it created a lot of tension between people that lived here. They're not criminals. They're just breaking minor laws.
As a result of these policies, we also saw an increase in stop and frisk. As a former police commissioner, how do you think those policies impact the people on the streets and their view toward police?
You've got to be very careful and measured with it. First of all, the police have a right to stop people, according to Terry vs. Ohio. They have a right to stop people forcibly. And this is a very violent town with a tremendous drug problem that's second to none in America, so you have to stop people. But on the other side, you've got to have reasonable suspicion to stop people. You can't just stop people with nothing.
What do you think of the Freddie Gray case?
I don’t know anything about the Freddie Gray case and neither do you. That’s the problem. That’s my biggest problem with this whole issue. Nobody knows what happened to Freddie Gray.
It looks like one of the great cities in America lost control of its streets. It’s pure and simple. I don’t know how else to put it.
Former Baltimore Police chief
The lawyers for the Gray family blame zero tolerance policing as the stem of the anger here. Are they right?
I don't know if they're right, and I'll tell you why. First of all, I didn't employ zero tolerance policing. People will put that on me. That was a phrase coined by the mayor and run with by the media.
But you’re familiar with the policy.
Absolutely, but I don't want people to misunderstand that's what we did, because we didn't. We targeted minor crimes. If you had a series of murders or shootings in the area, you couldn’t solve them, but you had a dice game every night where you had a bunch of people drinking or smoking pot. We’d enforce those laws, run people, get warrants, and get information on the bigger crimes. That was the way it was done. After I left, they were still enforcing minor laws from what I heard, but not with an eye toward solving bigger crimes. It created a lot of animosity.
Is it unfair to blame police policies for the rioting that we saw unfold in Baltimore?
I think so. Look, the problem is the police are the first – and maybe the only – visible arm of the government that the people see in many communities in America, especially in Baltimore [and other] poor communities. You've got all kinds of problems. You've got a drug problem, second to none. You've got a heroin problem that never went away. You've got poverty. You have policies where kids get a felony hung around their neck as a teenager [and] they can never work for the rest of their lives. What do you think they're going to do for money? It's an obvious dilemma that needs to be solved, so there's a lot of problems that have nothing to do with the police, yet everyone points to police because they're an easy target. They're the punching bag for America right now. No politicians take blame in this. How come no politician will stand up and say, “Hey, we need to employ convicted felons. This is outrageous. These kids need a second chance at life”? How come no one has the courage to stand up and say that? Yet, we can blame the police for every ill.
And then of course, there's community rhetoric. People make money doing this. We saw people at the funeral for Freddie Gray. I didn't see any for the 200 African-American kids who were killed last year. I buried seven police officers when I was the chief; four of them were black. There were no protests. Nobody came to those funerals. So I'd really like to know how sincere this is and what's really behind it.
Is there a concern that people could come to this town and turn this into personal opportunity?
I think that you're seeing it already. People are making careers out of this. There are people that make careers out of racial divide in this country, and they've been doing it for decades. Unfortunately, they use the people who believe that they're really helping sometimes. They come in, throw a proverbial grenade in your city and create all kinds of havoc, and then they leave and go on to the next city. And the people here – the police, the communities, the politicians, the clergy – they're left to clean up the mess made by people from out of town.
We’ve been watching this unfold on television. You were the police commander in this city a decade ago. What went through your mind when you watched Monday's riot?
“Why are you letting this go on so long?” That's all I kept thinking. I'm trying not to criticize the command staff of the police department now, but I was trained in New York. We had a lot of civil unrest up there. We have the [United Nations], we had Al Sharpton, we were used to having all kinds of marches and peaceful protests. My rule would be, and people know, that the first rock that was thrown last night would have been the last one. You don't let that go on. You don't let your police officer stand there and get pelted with concrete. You don't allow teenagers to loot stores and burn out people's livelihoods.
A lot of these people, they don't have insurance. It's not going to cover. Their entire life savings is gone, and they're providing a community service. They're providing jobs, and now you're going to let them burn the stores down? What about their rights? I just think it was a bad stance to take, and I don't know how we haven't learned from the past where this theory of letting rioters breathe or vent and giving them space, it hasn't worked anywhere, ever. Why would you continue this policy? I just don't get it and that was my frustration.
As someone who worked in this town, are there two Baltimores?
Oh, of course. It's a tale of two cities; I've always said that. I mean, I'm not breaking ground here. I've always said that. There's a very affluent city in the harbor and you've got all that and then the attractions for the tourists when they come. And then, there's great poverty and pain. They live side by side, and they have for a long time, and I've seen it firsthand.
For people who haven't lived in this town or haven't been on a police department here, how would you describe the ills of Baltimore? What's wrong with this city?
I've always said, I think this is a one of the great American cities that deserves to be saved. That's the reason I came here. I had offers from other cities and I left the biggest, the best police department in America to come here because [Maryland Gov. Martin] O'Malley convinced me the need was the greatest. I believed him and I still do. I think he was right. It’s a great city that needs to be saved.