Retired police commissioner Pomerleau dies

January 20, 1992|By Carl Schoettler

Donald D. Pomerleau, the retired Marine colonel who reigned as Baltimore's most controversial -- and many say best -- police commissioner during an era of turbulent social and political change, died yesterday at his home in Northern Virginia. He was 76.

Services for Mr. Pomerleau will be held at 2 p.m. Thursday at the Wicomico Episcopal Church in Wicomico Church, Va. Burial will be at 1 p.m. Friday with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

Mr. Pomerleau came to Baltimore in 1966 to straighten out a creaky, out-of-date, mismanaged, disorganized and demoralized police department. He had the recommendation and mandate of the International Association of Police Chiefs, which had studied the department six months and found it a mess.

The department remains today, a decade after his retirement, largely a reflection of Mr. Pomerleau's work. He streamlined and modernized the Baltimore department. He vastly increased opportunities for blacks and women in the department. He also politicized it and instituted a security division that raised questions of improper wiretapping, searches and spying on people who were not accused of any crimes, nor had committed any.

His watch as commissioner encompassed civil rights demonstrations, the riots in 1968, later Black-Panther-style militancy, impassioned anti-war marches, the first police strike in a major American city in a half-cen

tury, and the 1976 internal security investigations.

He commanded the department for 15 years. And he ran it pretty much the way Gen. Douglas MacArthur ran Japan: somewhat more imperiously than the Emperor.

The most enduring symbol of Mr. Pomerleau's reign is perhaps the image of the commissioner crowned with a cowboy hat mounted on a horse helping his men round up looters during the 1979 blizzard.

When he was sworn in Sept. 22, 1966, as Baltimore's ninth police commissioner, Mr. Pomerleau replaced Gen. George M.

Gelston,the commanding officer of the Maryland National guard, who was interim commissioner.The calm, unflappable and patrician General Gelston had been credited with averting major racial conflict during the sizzling summer of 1966.

Mr. Pomerleau had been director of public safety for Kingsport, Tenn., and Dade County, Fla., and a consultant for the I.A.C.P. in Chicago, Syracuse, Washington, Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

"Times are not changing," he said, as he took over his new job. "They have changed. And we must change also. And we shall."

He immediately launched a new records system to ensure accurate crime reporting. He instituted management training courses for his deputies. He put foot patrolmen into cars. He sought new and better-qualified officers for a seriously undermanned department. He promised contemporary standards in police pay, workweek and fringe benefits. He said he opposed police unions and civilian review boards, but he said he would back his men and women "all the way when they are right."

He arrived for his first day as commissioner in a cab instead of the limousine that went with the job.

"Exuding an air of quiet firmness," observed a contemporary report, "Pomerleau walked up the ramp at [the old] headquarters, passed through Central District unnoticed and climbed four flights of stairs to his office."

Mr. Pomerleau remained firm, if not downright implacable, throughout his term here, but he'd never again be unnoticed at Police Headquarters.

Typically, the new commissioner immediately asked for a million dollars. Typically, Mayor Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin said the city didn't have the money.

Veteran reporters at police headquarters recall that in their initial meeting, Mr. Pomerleau said: "My door is always open to the press." Then he turned his back, walked into his office and slammed the door.

Coverage of the department had fundamentally changed. Press conferences and interviews became rare. Mr. Pomerleau did not like to be criticized, challenged or even questioned. He expected to be obeyed.

He was a blunt, craggy-faced man who cultivated an image of aloofness and power. He walked with long, forceful strides, militarilyerect, his head cocked slightly to the right. Critics called him arrogant.

He had been a horse Marine in China in the 1930s; a military policeman in World War II on Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan and Tinian; a combat commander during the Korean War; and provost marshal of the Marine Corps School at Quantico, Va. He retired in 1958.

He'd joined the Marines as a private and left a lieutenant colonel. He was born Aug. 31, 1915, on a ranch near Medicine Lake,Mont. He rode a horse to school in Whitehall, population 200. When he graduated from high school in the depth of the Great Depression, there was no money for college and the Marines seemed like a good deal for an ambitious youth.

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