Ed Norris, the former police commissioner of Baltimore, is angry. Seated, leaning forward with his elbows resting on the console of Baltimore’s 105.7 FM WHFS studio, he’s listening to callers to his mid-day talk-radio show. The big story this scalding August day is the fire bombing of the house of a woman in Waverly after she called the police to report drug dealers loitering by her porch. A caller is venting, incensed by the lawlessness. Leaning forward, closer to the microphone, Norris says, “I hear you buddy. Thanks for the call.”
Norris pauses a moment. The dead air trails off abruptly as Norris inflates his lungs and shouts, “I sound like a lunatic but 200 people killed already this year, witness’s fire bombed. What’s going on here? People just say, ‘Well, that’s Baltimore.’ It’s outrageous. People need to get fired up, refuse to accept it, hold the mayor and the leadership of the city accountable. It’s like the people who run this state get away with murder and nobody cares. I care and I know some people care but it sometimes feels like most of the city’s residents just accept it. I’ll tell you what I’d do if I were still running things. The whole force on overtime, nobody selling drugs would be able to breathe today. And if one of ‘em pulls a gun on a cop and gets shot, oh well, that’s just too damn bad. I don’t want to hear the mother bitching about the police. What’s your kid doing with a pistol?” As Norris unloads, his right hand chops the air and his temples pulsate like a belly dancer beneath his headphones.
The Ed Norris Show is two years old and, with an audience that has increased by 61% in the past year, may be soon syndicated. Norris talks often about Baltimore’s escalating crime (“You’d be safer in Baghdad.”) and how to snuff it out (“I know more about crime and how to fight it than just about anyone I know.”). This past June he held an on-air press conference to introduce his crime plan. Auditing the crime statistics, focusing on capturing thugs with outstanding warrants, and prosecuting severely all gun crimes would, Norris believes, produce an immediate reduction in violent crime. He ought to know. Through aggressive, high-profile policing, Norris, a 20-year veteran of the NYPD before coming to run the Baltimore Police Department, spearheaded the first significant reduction in Baltimore’s homicides in a decade. In the process, he became the charismatic media-savvy celebrity cop to a city grown accustomed to mayhem and bloodshed. He was toasted at political dinners; he ate filet mignon; he drank and partied; he started portraying homicide detective Ed Norris on the HBO series The Wire; he posed for pictures with tourists. Then, in the space of a few months, Norris’s crime fighting career disintegrated.
It started when the Baltimore Sun questioned some of his spending from a discretionary account, claiming that about $20,000 were spent on personal expenditures, including gifts for three women from Victoria’s Secret, expensive dinners and trips out-of-state with different women. Though an Ernst and Young audit found only $61.85 from a Nordstrom purchase unaccounted for, Norris, after meeting with the city finance director agreed to pay back an additional $6,000 for a trip to New York to attend a funeral, Orioles tickets and souvenirs, and $2,000 of undocumented expenditures. Nonetheless, in short order U.S. Attorney Thomas J. DiBaigio and his five investigators developed an indictment that, in addition to the spending from the discretionary fund, included Norris’ failure to report a $9,000 loan from his father constituting tax fraud, a federal charge with a maximum sentence of 30 years. Choosing not to fight the feds (“When the court document says the United States Government versus you, you might as well get on the floor”) Norris pleaded guilty to misusing funds from the BPD discretionary account in return for the dropping of the tax fraud charge. He served six months in prison, six months’ home detention, 500 hours of community service and paid $12,000 in restitution and a $10,000 fine. Ex-felons, especially if they were once a police commissioner, have no real employment prospects so Norris agreed to host a fledgling Baltimore talk-radio show. The Ed Norris Show, now the number one mid-day talk-radio show in Baltimore, will make him more money in the next two years than he would ever have earned as a high-ranking cop.
Norris, who, at first glance, doesn’t appear to be afflicted with paranoia, insists he was railroaded. Though he acknowledges some wrongdoing, he claims that he made restitution and that his offenses did not merit federal prosecution. Norris believes that his prosecution and conviction has the whiff of a political hatchet job. It’s unlikely that the facts will ever be known entirely, but Norris, and his growing number of supporters, believe that he made an enemy of the feds when, in October 2002, he gave searing testimony to the Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Communication Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attack of September 11, 2001. The limited transcripts available indicate that Norris came down hard on the FBI and CIA for their profound incompetence and their disregard for elementary rules of intelligence gathering and for failing to share information on terrorist suspects with local jurisdictions. A competing, though even less credible, theory is that Martin O’Malley, the current Governor of Maryland and former mayor of Baltimore, was so jealous of Norris’ popularity and felt so betrayed when Norris left the BPD in late 2002 to run the Maryland State Police, that he ensured that an anonymous tip about Norris’ indiscretions made its way to DiBiagio’s office.
Time and the burgeoning success of the show haven’t diluted Norris’ anger toward those who, as he sees it, drove him out of police work. Every now and then he’ll unleash the latent anger to his audience. He’ll rant about what he perceives as, “the railroading of a good cop” and “my political assassination at the hands of O’Malley and his minions.” When riding his anger, Norris refers to O’Malley variously as “the baby Jesus” and “the golden boy.” He’ll also characterize O’Malley as a vindictive sociopath whose untamed ambition leaves in its wake ruined reputations and shattered lives. DiBaggio is also an epicenter of Norris’ unresolved rage, having been called a “scumbag” a “lowlife” and “an absolute disgrace of a human being.” (DiBaigio, in early 2005, resigned US Attorney of the Maryland District in light of evidence that he ordered his subordinates to produce a slew of “front-page” indictments.)
Whatever the truth behind the Norris prosecution, many current and former members of the BPD believe he was shafted. Frederick V. Roussey, former Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police President, himself the subject of allegations of administrative misconduct, said, “He’s a good honest man … He’s still loved by these guys here. The guy was a straight-up honest cop, and he’s a good cop and he got railroaded by the feds. He brought pride back to this Police Department.” Likewise, many rank and file cops will tell you that Norris was the best police commissioner the city ever had and that his prosecution was an abomination. Many, according to Norris, tune-in to his show while on the job.
Norris, 46, stands only 5’9” but his shaved head, brown goatee, dark eyes and stout frame give pause. He’s thick around the shoulders and there’s no discernible taper to his body. Meaty thighs give the impression that he could lift great weight from the floor. Norris’ clubby forearms are connected to chunky hands and stubby fingers; the tip of one finger was reattached years ago after it was sliced off when he pistol whipped a suspect resisting arrest. His demeanor, honed from years of dealing with drug dealers, rapists, subordinates and politicos, is deadpan and hard ass.
When I meet Norris he’s wearing dark blue jeans as tight as sausage casings, black heavy-duty stitched work boots and a loose fitting black and white short-sleeved button down shirt styled like he’s on a bowling team. Over the heart is an embroidered pair of red boxing gloves sandwiched between the words “Baltimore Boxing.” A silver crucifix on a thick braided chain peaks through the shirt. On the ring finger of his left hand is an inch-wide braided silver ring that he sometimes slips on and off while listening to callers. He’s not wearing a watch.
Norris shares a small office with Maynard Edwards, his show’s co-producer and on-air co-pilot. Edwards, a lean thirty-two year-old with thinning black hair and a Hollywood chin is pecking his laptop. “Nothing’s happening. This makes the show hard to put together,” he says to me. Nonetheless, he prepares a stapled document that contains items culled from the Internet. A grid on the front sheet breaks the show into 20-minute segments and each cell is filled in with a topic such as: Internet vs. newspapers, mayoral race, Spanish Maryland Public Television Channel.
Edwards believes the show’s success is because Norris is the genuine article. As he puts it, “In radio you usually turn up the knob on your personality. But not Ed, he doesn’t have a knob to turn up. The way he is on the radio is the way he is.”
On the day we meet, Norris, who arrives 20 minutes before he goes on air, is sick. Sniffling and feverish, his Brooklyn-tinged tenor is congested. “My son is sick again and he got me. Boy, do I feel lousy.” He hands Edwards a copy of the New York Times and says, “Look, they’re increasing the scope of physical surveillance. I’d like to talk about this when we get the chance.”
According to Edwards, Norris’ political affiliation is hard to pin down, “Ed, I think, is a Republican. He’s pro-second amendment and pro-military. But he’s pro-choice and believes the Patriot Act is bad. He’s also against illegal immigration, but only for security reasons.” Norris, however, is conflicted about capital punishment. If one could absolutely be sure that those on death row were indeed guilty of the heinous crime for which they were convicted, Norris thinks the state ought to kill them. Apart from the well-established racial bias, DNA evidence has exonerated so many slated to die that Norris has moved decidedly toward not sticking in the lethal injection. He also thinks that, on the whole, the criminal justice system needs recalibration. As he often says on his show, “Fifty percent of the people in prison shouldn’t be there and the other 50% should never get out.” Prosecuting violent offenders to the full extent of the law, keeping them incarcerated, he preaches, would, eventually, virtually eliminate violent crime since the vast majority of such crimes are committed by a small cohort of repeat offenders who are never definitively isolated from society.
Norris, sitting at his desk, chews down a sandwich and sips a Diet Coke as he reviews the Edwards document. “Because of Ed’s background in law enforcement, crime is covered a lot on the show. But he’s very smart and can speak to any topic,” says Edwards. Recent show topics include the JFK assassination, practical jokes, computer security, mixed martial arts, and Elvis Presley.
Three minutes before air time, Norris unlocks his desk draw and pulls out his laptop and accompanies Edwards down the gleaming corridor to the studio.
Norris settles into the studio as the taped introduction to The Ed Norris Show plays. A deep voice says, “Ed Norris, they took away his badge but they couldn’t take away his mouth.” Norris plugs in his laptop, gets headphones on, and, after a signal from Edwards, goes on the air with the “roll call”, a 20-second tease of the upcoming show, closing with his customary, “Not your grandpa’s talk show. Let’s go.”
Though it’s a Monday and the past weekend was uneventful, Norris is skilled at engaging the audience. As he said to me when I asked what skills from police work he transfers to the radio, “I can talk to anyone. Whether it’s a drunk at three a.m. or a politician, it doesn’t matter. I can talk and get people to talk.”
The topic that most ignites the audience is the start of a Spanish channel funded by Maryland Public Television. Norris asks how they feel about the use of public money to fund the channel. Such an emotionally-charged topic is the life blood of talk-radio. The switchboard lights up. Callers argue both sides. Some calls border on racist, “I’m sick of these people coming over illegally and thinking that we have to cater to them. If they want a Spanish language channel they should go back home where they belong.”
Callers are handled courteously by Norris, “Okay, thanks for the call. I just want to know what people think. I think you’ve made yourself clear.” Norris closes the segment, never revealing himself.
Observing Norris and Edwards in studio you witness nods, winks, hand signals, waves, finger pointing and the flipping of newspaper pages that somehow forms their language. Edwards, who talks about 30% of the time, will say something and Norris will respond. They play off each other but, almost miraculously, they don’t talk over each other or awkwardly interrupt. On air it comes across in a seamless way, like a well-choreographed verbal dance.
During a commercial break Norris takes off his headphones, rubs his eyes and exhales audibly. His throat, raw from his cold, is soothed by sips of icy Diet Coke. He unfolds his cell phone, checking messages.
Across the street a new building is going up so hills of dirt and heavy equipment sit around. Norris looks out the window, smiles and says, “I hate this. I’ll be really pissed if a bullet goes through this window, really pissed.” Edwards laughs and says, “Yeah, that’s why I don’t like to sit next to you, in case they hit me by mistake.”
Norris has been so critical of Governor O’Malley and so outspoken about what he considers O’Malley’s underhanded tactics that being a target for reprisal wouldn’t surprise him. In recent weeks, Norris has taken it upon himself to try to derail O’Malley’s new tax plan, a plan that is said to be the largest tax increase in Maryland history. As Norris repeats ad nauseum, “It’s our money. He wants to take more of our money before he even presents a budget. The 2008 budget is balanced. He wants to tax us because of a projected deficit. Here’s an idea, how about cutting spending? Instead of increasing program budgets by 9%, increase them by 3%. I have to balance my checkbook. I can’t fleece people when I need some cash.” Norris theorizes that O’Malley wants to collect a multi-billion dollar surplus so he can begin to introduce a form of socialized medicine in Maryland in the hope that such a program will secure him a cabinet position in a prospective Hillary Clinton Administration; he is currently the chair of her Maryland election committee. Beyond that, Norris is convinced that O’Malley’s ultimate goal is to occupy the White House.
In late October, The Ed Norris Show was broadcast from a restaurant in Annapolis, the capital of Maryland, on the first day of the special session of the Maryland Legislature to debate O’Malley’s tax plan. “The Ed Norris Tea Party”, as it was called, attracted hundreds of Norris’ listeners, many who brought along trash bags full of tea bags. Venders were selling “Impeach O’Malley” and “Norris for President” t-shirts. Attendees and callers who found their way to Norris’ air waves called O’Malley “Martin O’Money”, “the drunk driver”, “the dictator” and worse. It’s not hard to imagine Norris instigating, smiling and egging them on.
There is very little neutrality when it comes to Ed Norris. Many people in Baltimore view him with contempt; seeing him as an ultra-ambitious, egotistical maniac who abused his power and thought he was above the very law he was sworn to uphold. Rival radio hosts, echoing this sentiment, refer to him simply as “the ex-felon.” For others, Norris’ rise, fall, and attempt at redemption seem to resonate. The facts of his case really don’t matter to them. They believe him; believe that the system really is corrupt and that it’s feasible that a good man could be brought to his knees by a vindictive mayor or an over-zealous federal prosecutor. This may also help to explain why Norris has a substantial following in the African-American community. On any given day Norris often fields more calls from African Americans than from whites – unheard of for a white radio host. Perhaps having done time coupled with his advocacy for the legalization of street drugs gives him immediate credibility from segments of a community that believe the drug war is a justification to jail young black men. As David Callahan, Executive Editor of Baltimore SmartCEO Magazine and a regular guest on The Ed Norris Show puts it, “Comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable is journalistic cliché, but it doesn’t really happen much these days. I think slowly but surely, Norris is getting better at that while much of the rest of mainstream media is getting worse at it.” Listening to Norris’ show for any length of time, however, gives you the sense that his comforting the afflicted is not feigned but genuine, arising from a deep conviction: the product of his personality, of his years in law enforcement and his experience on the wrong side of prison bars. His audience is so taken by his plight that they, spearheaded by fellow talk-radio host Tom Moore, have started a campaign to get Norris a presidential pardon. “Absolutely, positively, I’d want a pardon,” he recently told the Baltimore Examiner. “I was born to be a cop. I’d go back tomorrow morning if I was able to.” It’s hard to dismiss the impression, however, that Norris enjoys hammering away at O’Malley on the radio too much to take a pay cut to be a cop again.
Kevin Fontaine, PhD
Assistant Professor of Medicine
Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine