Excerpt from “Way Down in the Hole”
Ed Norris spent 20 years as a crime-fighting savant with the New York Police Department, rising from beat cop to deputy commissioner of operations at age 36. As police commissioner of Baltimore, he breathed life into a demoralized force that lowered the city’s homicide count for the first time in a decade. After the 9/11 attacks, he took over the Maryland State Police and pushed innovative anti-terrorism strategies that made him a national leader in the field.
Then it all came crashing down. This is the incredible story of America’s most promising cop, the dark forces that brought him down and his long, emotional journey back from the abyss.
People always ask me what the worst moment was. That one’s easy. The worst moment was like something from a Fellini movie.
The time: September of 2004. The place: the U.S. Federal Penitentiary, Atlanta, a shadowy Gothic-looking structure with gun turrets looming over high stone walls that emitted a strange greenish glow.
Months earlier, I had stood in front of a Baltimore courtroom packed with family, friends and national media and listened in stunned disbelief as a judge sentenced me to six months in prison on trumped-up charges of corruption and tax evasion.
Now, after serving time in Florida and Mississippi, I’d been transferred to Atlanta, one of the most notorious lock-ups in the country.
It was my first night in the “Big House,” and the guards had just escorted me through a corridor ringed by howling inmates to a sweltering cell. My two new cellies were straight out of Central Casting: hulking, sullen and inked from head to toe with garish testimonials to the thug life. Neither seemed thrilled to be sharing his quarters with another wretched guest of the government.
Gazing around, I noticed there were only two bunks. Guess who was sleeping on the floor? I sighed and threw down my newly-issued pillow and blanket.
As I spread out on the hard concrete, one of my cheerful new roomies handed me a tube of rolled-up newspapers wrapped in tape. He pointed at the cell’s battleship-gray steel door.
“Hold that roll under the door with your feet,” he said. “It’ll keep the rats out.”
With that, he turned around and fired up a meth pipe. Soon he and his charming companion were beaming upward into another world, the dope leaving them giggling and muttering gibberish to each other.
Watching this surreal scene, I began to laugh uncontrollably.
It was the shrill, frenzied laughter of someone on the edge of a crack-up.
Look at me! I thought. I’m wearing orange prison pants that are way too small and a T-shirt the size of a Bedouin’s tent. They didn’t even give me sneakers that match!
Meanwhile, my welcoming committee over there is getting blasted on meth and I’m crumpled on the floor like some kind of skid row Orkin Man, trying to keep the rats out!
A year ago, I was the superintendent of the Maryland State Police! Before that I was the police commissioner of Baltimore! How the [expletive] did they ever get away with this?!
I stifled a sob. Sleep didn’t come for hours as the absurdity of my situation plunged me deeper and deeper into despair.
In the same place where they locked up Al Capone?
The same place the Cuban “Mariel boatlift” detainees burned in the late 80’s riots?
How could any of this be real?!
All my life, I’d thought of myself as one of the good guys. You could say I was born to be a cop. My father had been a cop. So had my grandfather. So had four uncles.
As a boy growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., I thought of the police as super-heroes. Instead of colorful capes and tights and masks, they wore crisp uniform shirts with brass buttons and blue woolen jackets, shiny badges on their chests and no-nonsense Smith & Wesson revolvers on their hips. They were fearless and taciturn and had each other’s backs no matter what. Everyone in the neighborhood looked up to them.
Little wonder that at age 20, I went into the family business and joined the New York Police Department, determined to do my part in the endless war against the bad guys. There was certainly no shortage of them. Mid-town Manhattan, my first assignment, was a toxic stew of stick-up boys, drug dealers, pimps, hookers, pickpockets, car thieves and con men preying on the wide-eyed tourists and down-and-out drifters that poured off the buses daily at the Port Authority.
For a rookie cop who craved action, who relished breaking up a good old-fashioned poolroom brawl or rolling around the sidewalk with a twitchy junkie flashing a knife, it was intoxicating.
Once, working plain-clothes on 42nd Street, I saw this guy smack a girl across the face. I was wearing a red-white-and-blue satin USA jacket, the gold Olympic rings gleaming in the late-day sunshine.
The guy saw me staring at him and smirked.
“What are you going to do about it, Captain America?” he said. “You want to be a hero?”
Yep, I sure did.
I hit this fool so hard that when my partner Dan Mullin joined the fracas, the three of us went crashing through the doors of a Popeye’s before I could get out the handcuffs.
Hell, I was starting to feel like him!
From the beginning, I was on the fast track in the NYPD, shooting up the ranks in anti-crime, narcotics, the detective bureau. I headed the warrant division and we doubled the yearly number of fugitives caught from 6,000 to 12,000. I was put in charge of the department’s first Cold Case Squad, which won national acclaim and was the subject of a best-selling book and NPR special.
In the eyes of the brass, I was now a genuine superstar. And at the tender age of 36, I was named deputy commissioner of operations, the youngest in the department’s history.
My star kept rising. When I took over as commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department in 2000, the city’s murder rate was seven times the national average. Over 300 homicides had been recorded each year for the past decade.
Morale in the department was horrible. Corruption was pervasive. Modern policing equipment was largely non-existent.
But with the eager blessing of the city’s charismatic new mayor, Martin O’Malley – the newspaper called us “Batman and Robin” – I set out to change all that. And we did. Crime went down almost immediately, dropping 29 percent the first two years. The murder rate plummeted from 305 to 262 the first year, to 253 the year after that.
And when I jumped out of a police car at a busy drug corner to wrestle a heroin dealer to the ground – “Unit One in pursuit!” squawked over the radio – it only heightened the mythology already building around me.
The new commish did what?
Ran down a corner boy and put the cuffs on him?
No one had ever heard of such a thing.
It was clear that crime in Baltimore was undergoing a seismic shift for the better. The bad guys were on the run. The streets felt safer. I was a rock star. I ate in the city’s best restaurants and drank in the finest bars. Men elbowed each other aside to buy me another round. Women wanted to be near me.
I had a recurring role on “The Wire,” HBO’s hit police drama, playing a street detective from New York named – wait for it – Ed Norris. Even when I became burned out and disillusioned and took the top job with the Maryland State Police in 2002, I remained hugely popular in Baltimore.
Veteran cops, city council members and ordinary citizens would say I was the best police commissioner the city had ever had.
The business school at the University of Virginia would teach a graduate class about how my leadership skills transformed the police department.
I felt bigger than Cal Ripken Jr.
Then it all came crashing down.
It started with stories in the “Baltimore Sun” about an off-the-books expense account while I was still the city’s police commissioner. This was followed by the steady drip-drip-drip of ominous rumors about an investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s office.
At first I was unconcerned. The account involved no taxpayer money. Zero.
But the feds wanted their pound of flesh. Their claws were in me. And they had no intention of letting go.
Even after an independent audit showed almost all the money was spent on departmental business, even after I paid back $20,000 in personal expenses for which the receipts had been lost, federal prosecutors brought a sham indictment that included lurid allegations of gifts spent on women at Victoria’s Secret and extra-marital affairs.
Now the case contained the whiff of sex.
And we all know what that can do in today’s over-heated media climate.
The feds went into over-drive looking for dirt on my love life. The press beat me like a piñata. It was all so sickeningly unfair. And I had to sit back and take it.
Let me say this up front: I was a damned good police commissioner in those days. But I was no angel. I strayed in my marriage. I worked hard and partied hard. And some of that partying was with women I had no business being with.
But this is the truth: I never stole even one thin dime from that fund. Never used it to pay for gifts for anyone except my staff, such as flowers for my secretaries and holsters for my bodyguards. Bottom line? I never abused that fund in any way, shape or form.
Of course, I pleaded not guilty to the charges.
“It’s all [expletive],” I told my lawyers. “Let’s go to trial.”
I wanted to take on the bastards.
But you go up against the federal government at your peril. Those guys don’t like to lose. They have armies of lawyers and an endless supply of cash to throw at you.
So it was that a few months later, I lay in a dank cell in the Atlanta penitentiary, half-crazed with fear and anxiety, listening to the giddy ravings of a couple of dopers as I pressed my shaking feet against the bars and prayed for the rodent hordes to stay away.
So this is my story.
It’s the story of a good cop’s life, his exemplary 23-year career and the dark forces that eventually took him down.
It’s a cautionary tale about government over-reach and naked prosecutorial ambition that can seemingly target any public figure at any time for any reason.
And maybe my story can also serve as a primer of sorts for how to rebuild a life after you’re stamped with the permanent tag of “convicted felon,” a situation familiar to far too many men and women in this country.
So far down you could have whacked me over the head with a shovel and buried me with a few more scoops of dirt.
This is the story of how I got so low.
And the story of how I dug myself out. I95
A Brooklyn, N.Y., native, Ed Norris began his career with the New York Police Department in 1980. During his tenure, he was promoted often and created the Cold Case Squad, which would later go on to inspire the A&E television series, “Cold Case Files.” In 2000, he became Police Commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department, and under his leadership, he helped drive homicides below 300 for the first time in many years. Currently, he is the co-host of the weekday morning Norris & Long Show on CBS WJZ-FM (105.7 The FAN) in Baltimore and is featured in weekly news segments on WBFF Fox45 News in Baltimore.