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Norris Rising

Baltimore’s ex-con ex-police commissioner has reinvented himself as a rising talk radio star. But if Ed Norris could have any job he wanted, he’d take his old one back.

On clear days, Ed Norris rides his new motorcycle, a Victory Kingpin, to his four-hour radio gig, where he holds forth on everything from the war in Iraq to the Ravens to the city schools.

Some days, there will be crises, of the sort that come up at radio stations, over equipment breakdowns or airtime. Some days, on the ride in to work, he can’t help it. All he can do is grin.

Few would have imagined this life for this man. Certainly not Ed Norris himself. Not during his spectacular rise from beat cop in New York City to police commissioner in Baltimore, where he brought the city’s notorious murder count below 300 for the first time in a decade. Not when he fell from grace three years ago, pleading guilty in a lurid federal corruption case that charged Norris with using an off-the-books police expense account to bankroll personal shopping excursions, steak dinners, bar tabs, and romantic liaisons.

While he was serving his six-month sentence in federal prison, Norris couldn’t imagine any life on the outside. He knew his conviction meant he could not return to policing. After he was released, in February 2005, he discovered that finding any work would be a complicated endeavor. He got an $8-an-hour job selling soap and cologne at the perfumery Caswell-Massey because it was the one store near where he and his wife were living at the time in Tampa, Florida, that did not include the question on its application form: Have you ever been convicted of a crime? Two months later, someone complained to the store’s corporate headquarters about its ex-cop, ex-con employee. Norris was out of a job again.

But, now, here he is, every weekday from 10 to 2, presiding over a call-in radio show gaining popularity at such a rate that local CBS Radio executives are discussing shopping it for national syndication. One on-air promo for the show intones: “The Ed Norris Show, locked and loaded,” although its host (a felon) can no longer own a gun. The show is heavy on Maryland politics, with Martin O’Malley—the state’s new governor, and Norris’s old boss—a frequent subject of discussion. But because of his conviction, Norris couldn’t vote in last fall’s election. The man who once controlled a 3,000-officer police department now controls this pulpit of talk radio. So, he talks. He talks about race. He talks about terrorism. He talks about movies. He talks about Britney Spears. He talks about rebuilding a life.

“No offense, you earned it, but not everybody gets a second chance like you,” a caller said one day.

“I’m lucky. I know it,” Norris replied.

At age 46, he is making real money—”more next year than I’ll ever make as a cop,” Norris says, maybe unconsciously holding out hope that he could rejoin a department. He plays a recurring character on the HBO series The Wire, he tools around town in a red BMW 325 coupe (back when he was allegedly living large as the city’s $137,000-a-year police commissioner, his personal car was an aging Volkswagen Jetta, he notes for the record).

Norris and his wife, Kathryn, have moved back from Florida and settled in Baltimore County (Norris says that his wife declined to comment for this story). Everywhere, he is stopped by people who want to say hello or shake his hand or give a nod of approval.

“They just want to touch him,” says former Governor Robert L. Ehrlich, who hired Norris away from the city in December 2002 to head the Maryland State Police, the job he had to leave a year later when the federal charges came down. One of Norris’s new colleagues, Baltimore radio personality Maynard Edwards, puts it this way: “He’s gone from police officer to folk hero.”

There’s only one problem with this new Ed Norris: He wants to be the old Ed Norris. If he could have any job he wanted, any job on Earth, he would be a cop again.

“I’d probably be the commissioner of Baltimore again. I’d like to just re-right that ship,” Norris says. “Yeah. . . . If I was absolved today, I would really like to just go back and fix it—from what I hear, they’ve got a lot of problems.”

His voice trails off. He laughs. Later, he goes back to it again.

“It’s just how I’m wired,” says the third-generation police officer, who worked 24 years in policing before it all collapsed. “It was all I lived for, to help people. I don’t want it to come across like I’m not happy in my new career, because I love it—I’m really loving this job, it’s a great career, and I’m going to continue in it. Becoming police commissioner is not in the realm of reality, so it’s not going to happen. But I’ve just had this thing, I’ve always been like this—helping people, it’s the best thing you can do. When I thought that was taken from me, that I was never going to get to do that again, I was really devastated.”

Public life is littered with once-powerful men brought down by their vices. And the story of Edward T. Norris seemed destined to join that canon. When he swept into town in 2000, Baltimore hardly knew what to make of its brash, fast-talking out-of-town top cop. He had his police shirts custom made and wore a black leather uniform jacket. He got regular manicures and became a fixture at the city’s best restaurants. He also would occasionally jump out of his police vehicle and give chase through the roughest streets of Baltimore: Unit One, rolling. Norris’s mentor in New York City had been Jack Maple, the bon vivant cop credited for the dramatic crime reduction in that city in the 1990’s and known for his penchant for bow ties, two-tone shoes, and extravagant meals.

Norris, it seemed, had been a good student. Under him, Baltimore’s homicide count began to drop. From 305 in 1999, the year before Norris started as commissioner, to 253 in 2002, the year he resigned.

“I thought to myself then, and I feel now, that he was the guy,” says former Maryland State Police Lt. Colonel Mark “Steve” Chaney, who closely followed Norris’s efforts in the city and then served as his second-in-command in Annapolis. “Guys like him only come around once in a while. He was the person who could come down and who could relate to things, he had the city experience, he had the leadership . . . I think that he had the uncanny ability that a lot of police leaders lose along the way to step back and put himself in the shoes of his officers.”

University of Virginia business professor James G. Clawson uses the turnaround of the Baltimore Police Department under Norris as a teaching example in his graduate-level leadership class.

“In the original go-around, I sort of viewed him as a true American hero,” Clawson says. “And in many ways, I still do, in the sense that he saw something that needed to be done and he was able to do it in large measure, regardless of resources or support. It was sort of John Wayne trying to fix the situation.”

Now, when his class reads the case study of Ed Norris, though, there is an epilogue about how it all unraveled.

It started with stories in The Sun, disclosing the existence of an off-the-books expense account and offering a glimpse of how the city’s captivating commissioner did business. There were pricey steak dinners, stays at the posh W Hotel in New York, outings to Orioles games. There was no public money in the loosely structured account, and most of the roughly $180,000 spent during Norris’s three-year tenure had directly benefited the department. But some $20,000 was in question. Norris said he would pay back any personal expenses. He took his licks in the press.

It didn’t end there. A few months after Norris left the city to head the Maryland State Police in December 2002, federal prosecutors picked up the case. In December 2003, they brought an indictment packed with titillating details about gifts for three women bought at Victoria’s Secret the day before Valentine’s in 2001, a $367 meal at Fleming’s Steakhouse in the Inner Harbor, shoes for $163 at Dan Bros. Discount Shoes, and more.

Norris read the charges, and he felt sure he could beat them. The shoes? They were combat boots bought the day after the Sept. 11 attacks; even the indictment noted the date on the receipt, Sept. 12, 2001. The dinner at Flemings that the indictment suggests was Norris and a female friend celebrating a birthday dinner for $376.10? It was dinner with a member of the police department, and there were two other men at the meal. The Valentine’s gifts? Norris says he never used cash from the fund to pay for personal gifts, and the court records showed that while prosecutors had a black robe to introduce as evidence, they didn’t have any receipts submitted to the fund for reimbursement.

Bring on a trial, Norris said. Prosecutors came back with what defense lawyers told him was the head shot. Investigators found that Norris took $9,000 from his father to help pay for his house and then later paid the money back—meaning it should have been considered a loan and reported on federal tax forms. The feds had Norris on a fraud count with a 30-year maximum sentence. His father could have faced charges. Norris says he didn’t see any choice. He pleaded. He stood in court, said he was guilty, and got a sentence of six months in prison, six months’ home detention, and 500 hours of community service.

The day before he reported to the minimum-security federal prison at Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle, two old friends from the NYPD picked Norris up so his family would not have to drop him off at the prison. The three friends had one last run. “It was like The Last Detail with Jack Nicholson,” Norris says, a reference to the 1973 movie where two Navy officers assigned to take a young offender to prison determinedly show him a good time along the way.

“We went, we had a steak, we had booze, went to a topless bar, we got it all in,” Norris says. “Then the first thing I did that next morning, I woke up early, I banged on all their doors, I go, ‘I want to get this done. Get up, get up. Let’s go.’ It was like, ‘I want to do this. The sooner I get there, the sooner I get out.'”

After a few months at Eglin, Norris and other prisoners were evacuated for Hurricane Ivan. He spent six weeks sleeping on the floor of a federal prison in Mississippi and later was transferred to the federal prison in Atlanta. Some prisoners knew his story. Others assumed the white guy with the shaved head and long beard was a meth dealer. Inmate number 41115-037 had spent his life locking up criminals. He never had thought much about the nuances of prison life. Now he was sleeping with his feet pressed against the door of the cell to keep out the rats. But what haunted him most was what he would do when he was done doing time.

“I had no idea. No idea. It was the worst,” Norris says. “Actually, a guy [convicted in an accounting scandal] came up to me, and he was like, ‘For the rest of us, this is bad, but we’ll recover. We have capital. We have businesses, we’ll create more businesses. But you—this is it. You can’t work in your field.’

“I said, ‘I know. I have no idea what I’ll do.’ For me, that was my biggest fear. I knew I could get through the tough part of it in prison and home detention. But the rest of my life—I’m still pretty young. I’ve got to work another 30 years.”

So Ed Norris began to rise again.

While he was serving his six-month home detention at the small house in Tampa, where he and his wife and their young son, Jack, had moved to escape the public eye of Baltimore, the former commissioner agreed to go back into that public eye. He started appearing, by phone, for an hour each day on the Big O & Dukes show on WHFS (105.7 FM). He started by talking about life on the inside. Life on home detention. His case. What it was like to work for Martin O’Malley. What it was like to work for Bob Ehrlich. The same blunt charm that won over the city a few years earlier was at work again.

When his home detention ended and U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett ordered that Norris had to perform his community service in Baltimore, he had a job waiting as co-host of the retooled show, Ed Norris with Big O & Dukes. Soon enough, it became, simply, The Ed Norris Show.

Other opportunities came as well. A cameo appearance as a homicide detective on HBO’s The Wire while he was police commissioner had grown into a recurring character. When Norris was out of prison, the show’s creator and executive producer, David Simon, invited Norris back to the set. Simon never considered cutting Norris, but he wasn’t sure that Norris would want anything to do with a city where things had gone so wrong.

“I didn’t think we’d see much of him in Baltimore,” Simon said. “I had a feeling that whatever love he felt for this town was going to be gone. And I thought, what does a guy like that do? You know, when you’ve been a career cop, what do you do? But, you know, [F. Scott] Fitzgerald is full of [crap]. There are second acts and third acts and fourth acts in a lot of lives.”

These days, his television character is the closest Norris gets to police work. At his sentencing, prosecutors suggested Norris would find work after prison in consulting. But no town wants an ex-convict advising their police force, Norris said. When he was first released, he volunteered to perform his community service in Iraq, helping U.S. troops train the country’s police force. His conviction blocked that as well. Instead, he has spent the past year, a few hours at a time, serving out his community service working with The League for People with Disabilities. He expected to complete his 500th hour early this year. He still has one year of supervised release ahead. And then?

“You pay your penalty, but you never finish paying it. You never finish,” Norris says. “And I’m doubly outraged, because in my mind, I still didn’t do it. I’ve been convicted of a crime I never committed and now I’ve got to live with this forever.”

For Norris, that is the worst part. He pleaded guilty to things he says he did not do, and so in what should be a victory lap—a celebration of his swift, successful reinvention—he is slowed by the weight of the details of the case: the 34 instances of improper activity detailed by prosecutors. He goes through each one in his head, and he grows angry all over again.

“I didn’t do it. I know I didn’t do it. I know who I am. I know what I’ve stood for my whole life,” he says. “I’m a lot of things—I don’t steal anything. I’m not a thief. You want to believe I slept with six women? Make it 12. Make it a [expletive] hundred. I don’t care. Think what you want—it’s not a federal crime.”

Not everyone loves the new Ed Norris. Not everyone has forgiven the old Ed Norris. Callers to the radio show still bring up the case sometimes. One of his former bosses, Governor O’Malley, won’t discuss him. But he has plenty of fans.

One is his other former boss, Ehrlich, who, while he was still governor, invited Norris to the mansion in Annapolis to celebrate the radio show’s soaring ratings.

“I thought he got the short end of the stick. I thought he was not treated fairly. That view’s been well expressed by me. And to see him come back like this is very satisfying,” Ehrlich said in an interview shortly before he left office. “What occurred, it is what it is, it’s never going to change. On the other hand, in life you can either be captured by the past or you can go back out and compete—and he has gone back out and competed very successfully.”

In his public defense now, Norris has some new ammunition. The U.S. attorney who brought the case against him, Thomas M. DiBiagio, later was reprimanded for pushing his staff in emails during the summer of 2004 to bring three “front page indictments” by Election Day. Justice Department officials in Washington blocked DiBiagio from bringing any public corruption cases without their approval. Supporters of Norris saw it as evidence that the case against him was driven by a prosecutor looking for political pelts. “You were the 8-point buck,” Norris said he was told once by Ehrlich. “Who better to get than you?”

Now in private practice, DiBiagio flatly disputes that notion. “I think he’s confusing two things. He stole the money. He did commit the crime. And whether I in-artfully stated goals for the office is something completely different. He knew the system. He knew if he didn’t think he was [guilty], there would be a trial.”

“From the office’s standpoint, our core belief was justice without fear or favor, and the law applied to a popular police commissioner the same way it applied to a young kid on the street,” DiBiagio said. “The evidence was overwhelming that he stole money from the police department. To look the other way would be wrong.”

For the ex-cop and for the ex-prosecutor, the case is one of blacks and whites. Others see much gray.

“The fact that he can’t utilize his skills now to help Baltimore, or any other place like Baltimore, is not a victory for anybody,” says Simon, a former police reporter who had been impressed by Norris’s efforts to overhaul the city’s troubled force. “Ed Norris is going to make more money outside of government than he would inside government. I’m sure he’s there. His penance should be, you have to go back to be chief in Baltimore. The ultimate punishment? You want to sentence the guy? Sentence the guy to get the murder rate down another 30 percent. Because he’s the guy that could do it.”

Bob Philips, senior vice president for CBS Radio in Baltimore, says the “sky is the limit” for Norris in his new career. But even Philips does not pretend to think that this life is his new star’s first choice. “I would say it hasn’t been easy. It would have probably been a lot easier for him to move to another marketplace to start over,” he says. “I think deep down, he misses police work. He had something taken away from him that he lived his whole life for. And I think there isn’t a day that goes by that he doesn’t miss it.”

If it weren’t for the radio, if it weren’t for The Wire, if it weren’t for the generous welcome he found back in Baltimore, Norris isn’t sure what he would be doing now. He might have taken a job in construction. He might have sold suits. Instead, he got a job where tens of thousands of people listen every single day to what he has to say.

“If I lost this job tomorrow, because they switched the station to gospel or something, I’d still thank them for the job, because I never would have had this opportunity for people to really get to know me,” he says. Of the case, of everything else, he says only: “I don’t know. I don’t know why this happened. Big picture: I have to think this happened for a reason. Otherwise, I couldn’t live with myself. So, maybe, who knows what will happen. Maybe I will train somebody some day and he will be the guy to win the war on terror. I don’t know.”

He isn’t sure why it all happened. How, exactly, he became this new Ed Norris. But one thing is for sure: He doesn’t want to forget it.

When he got out of prison, when he got back to Baltimore, he got a reminder tattooed on his back. He wanted it to be permanent. He wanted it to hurt. Some days, when he is at the gym or trying on clothes, he catches a glimpse of it in a mirror.

It is a phoenix, rising.