Pomerleau dies revitalized police

January 20, 1992|By Albert Sehlstedt Jr.

Donald D. Pomerleau, the Marine Corps veteran who took charge of a foundering, demoralized Baltimore Police Department in 1966 and made it a model law enforcement agency, died yesterday at age 76.

Emily Pomerleau, his wife of 24 years, said that the former police commissioner died shortly after midnight after a long struggle with kidney cancer. Though he was sick the last two years of his life, he remained in the rural Edwardsville, Va., home on the banks of Hull Creek where he and Mrs. Pomerleau moved six years ago.

Taking over the Police Department at its nadir, Mr. Pomerleau raised the force to its authorized strength, boosted salaries, increased days off for officers, computerized crime prevention techniques, assembled a fleet of helicopters to respond to emergencies and established a modern crime laboratory reputed be among the finest in the nation.

However, his 15-year tenure as police commissioner, one of the longest in the history of the department, was fraught with arguments about unionization of the force, which he vigorously opposed, testy relations at times with city officials and allegations that he allowed wiretaps and credit checks of people who were not suspected of committing any crime.

Nevertheless, Gov. William Donald Schaefer, while mayor of Baltimore, called Mr. Pomerleau "the greatest police administrator anywhere," and a 1981 Evening Sun commentary at the time of his retirement observed that "friends and foes alike credit him with taking a battered, limping Police Department and turning it into a highly rated modern force."

Mr. Pomerleau was especially cited for his command of the department during the Baltimore riots that followed the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The commissioner forbade his policemen to shoot at looters or suspected arsonists and admonished them to use their weapons only in self-defense.

Black leaders praised the restraint of the department, and Lt. Gen. Robert H. York, commander of federal troops during the rioting, said he could not "praise them [the police] too highly."

Mr. Pomerleau was always a vigorous administrator who, according to his own approach to management, did not shrink from making decisions, controversial though they may have been.

He was also a chain smoker, assertive to the point of being arrogant, according to one critic, and a person who eschewed personal publicity -- though on one occasion he adjusted that persona to suit the occasion: When most of the department's vehicles were immobilized by a 20-inch snowfall in 1979, the commissioner donned a cowboy hat, climbed on a horse and patrolled the city streets with other mounted policemen to halt looting.

The other enduring influence on his life was his military past.

"I started out in the U.S. Marine Corps as a private and ended up as a lieutenant colonel," he once recalled while defining his approach to running the Police Department.

"You don't achieve anything in the Marines or out here [in civilian life] unless you're quite willing to be held accountable and to make decisions. . . . Why would anyone want to employ a department head who would sit back and wait for someone to tell him what to do?"

Donald David Pomerleau was born Aug. 31, 1915, and grew up in northeastern Montana, where his family had a farm. He rode a horse to school in Whitehall, a town six miles away with a population of about 200. His high school graduating class

numbered eight.

The young man wanted to go to college but could not afford the expense in those Depression years. He joined the Marines instead, served in China from 1934 to 1937 and was honorably discharged as a sergeant the following year.

He re-enlisted in the Marine Corps after the United States entered World War II and was sent to the Pacific theater. He also served in the Korean War and retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel in 1958 after four years as provost of the Marine Corps School at Quantico, Va.

Returning to civilian pursuits, Mr. Pomerleau was director of public safety in Kingsport, Tenn., for four years before taking a similar post in Miami. He left Miami in 1964 to join the International Association of Chiefs of Police, becoming a consultant to police forces in Chicago; Washington; Syracuse, N.Y.; Pittsburgh; and, finally, Baltimore.

His effective work here led to his selection as commissioner in 1966.

Among his first acts as commissioner were expanding the community relations division and requiring every member of the force to take a course in black history.

Among his first problems was finding people to become police officers. The department was 408 below its authorized strength of 2,654 men and women. The new commissioner promised his policemen $50 for each recruit persuaded to join the force.

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