Pomerleau: A Tough Cop

January 21, 1992

Donald Pomerleau was a Marine who became a cop and a consultant on cops. While with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, he came to Baltimore to suggest ways to restructure a corrupt and ineffective police force. Baltimore liked the man and his plan. Mr. Pomerleau stayed as the city's police commissioner for 15 years.

Those were years of great social change in America. The country was in turmoil, the cities a burning caldron. In retrospect, it is not surprising that Mr. Pomerleau created so many controversies during his tenure in Baltimore. Throughout the period he was able to call the shots. He was a tough cop but usually a prudent one. During the riots that followed the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the commissioner forbade his men from shooting at looters or suspected arsonists, possibly averting the kind of uncontrolled bloodshed that tainted other major cities.

Mr. Pomerleau was a product of his times and environment. Taking cues from J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, he collected secret dossiers on 60 organizations and more than 300 individuals whom he suspected of subversion. Even a harmless underground weekly newspaper, Harry, was infiltrated with an undercover agent. This strategy was successful in curbing radicalism. After a mysterious fire hit the local Black Panther headquarters, police put that organization out of business by removing two covered stretchers full of material from the building. (When asked about the contents of those stretchers after his retirement, Mr. Pomerleau said he would never reveal that information).

Mr. Pomerleau acted with characteristic resoluteness after a police union strike. Though he had supported collective bargaining, he retaliated by firing the illegal strike's participants. "Amnesty will not be granted as long as I am police commissioner," he pledged. And it wasn't.

Donald Pomerleau's great achievement in Baltimore was turning a badly run department into a force that for a time was among the nation's finest. Mr. Pomerleau's death Sunday at age 76 underscores the fact that none of his successors has been able to grapple successfully with the many difficult problems now confronting Baltimore City's police department. As long as those problems are shunted aside, effective crime-fighting will remain only an elusive goal. Don Pomerleau was indeed a tough act to follow.

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