Pomerleau took ill-gotten secrets to the grave

MICHAEL OLESKER

January 21, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

One day when he was still swollen with unchecked power, Donald D. Pomerleau, police commissioner of the city of Baltimore, summoned me to his office for a lesson in intimidation.

''I know everywhere you've been,'' he declared. ''I know everyone you've talked to, and I know everything you've been told.''

It was 1974. I was teamed with Joe Nawrozki at the News American, and the two of us were looking into a little-known intelligence arm of the police known as the Inspectional Services Division -- ISD -- or, as the wags put it, ''I Serve Donald,'' since the unit reported directly, and only, to Pomerleau.

Our sources were telling us some terrible things. They said ISD officers were routinely violating civil liberties, that they were tailing innocent people and using electronic eavesdropping equipment to dig up personal information on non-criminals.

Some of the victims were politicians whose views Pomerleau didn't like. Some were reporters, or attorneys, or those who had done no more than publicly protest their gas and electric rates or conditions at a city garbage dump.

Why investigate them? To give Pomerleau leverage, we were told, so he could call them into his office and say, ''Here's what I have on you. Now shut up, or I leak the information.''

And now, on this late winter afternoon, here was Pomerleau sitting behind his big desk, his head cocked to one side, and he said:

''I know you've been told we're collecting personal information on . . .'' and he named several prominent politicians. ''Forget it,'' he said. ''We're not doing that.''

''Wait a minute,'' I said. ''Are you telling me you're not collecting personal information on any politicians?''

And here is precisely what Donald Pomerleau replied:

''Just the blacks. Just the blacks. Just the blacks.''

I sat there not believing my ears: Not merely because he was verifying these acts but because, in his arrogance, he would assume he could tell me about it because we shared a skin tone.

It was a lie, by the way. His minions were collecting stuff on all sorts of community leaders, and skin color didn't much matter.

But now, here was Pomerleau rushing on about a certain black legislator. ''Oh, yeah,'' he said, ''we brought him in here and I opened his file and showed it to him.'' He toyed with a paper clip on his desk. ''And he got down on his knees and said to me, 'Oh, please Mr. Commissioner, please don't let this out.' ''

The police commissioner of Baltimore leaned back in his seat with a satisfied look. Don't mess with me, he was saying. I can crush you, too.

For a long time around here, Donald Pomerleau was a man filled not only with power, but with every instinct to use it and not every instinct to use it well. When he died Sunday, at 76, there were veteran police still on the force who said, ''Pomerleau? Yeah, I have stories. But don't use my name, OK?''

The obituaries yesterday lionized Pomerleau. OK, give the man his credit: He took a dispirited, demoralized police department and introduced it to the 20th century. He brought in computers and helicopters, and he established a crime lab, and there was never a moment during his 15 years as commissioner when anyone doubted exactly who was running the show.

But he stayed too long.

When hundreds of officers struck for higher pay in 1974, he not only fired plenty of them and suspended or demoted dozens more, but he effectively broke the back of the police union.

While narcotics traffic was gaining a foothold and then exploding across the city, Pomerleau blithely kept his drug unit to a literal handful of men who were utterly overwhelmed and outmanned by dealers.

When Pomerleau grew nervous about the city's increasing gun traffic, he launched a plan to buy up all street weapons -- offering a $50 bounty for every weapon turned in to the Police Department. But he blew about $600,000 in one month before realizing he'd been conned. Crooks were turning in cheap guns and using the bounty money to buy better ones.

And yet, that was small stuff.

He was a man grappling with a changing world, and trying to take bold steps, and sometimes he struck wisely and sometimes not.

But always, across the years, he was moving with the certainty of a marine officer and the cunning of a politician looking to consolidate his power and make the most of it.

The politicians were terrified of him. For months, Joe Nawrozki and I wrote about these random violations of civil liberties by the ISD -- the undercover guys tailing innocent people, the telephone wiretaps, the electronic bugs -- until finally a state Senate committee investigated.

Their probe went on for about a year, and there was one morning in Annapolis that seemed to crystallize everything about Pomerleau. An open hearing was scheduled, with Pomerleau scheduled to testify and dozens of seats set aside for the public to witness the confrontation.

There was a power failure early that morning. And, when they opened the doors to the hearing room, silhouetted against open windows, it was immediately clear that every seat for the public was already filled -- with the shadowy figures of Pomerleau's top command officers, all of them ordered to fill up the room and keep the public out.

At year's end, the Senate committee issued a lengthy report that not only backed up every newspaper account of random ISD violations but went even further into police abuse.

But, the day the report was issued, without even looking at its contents, there was immediate reaction from a governor named Marvin Mandel and a mayor named William Donald Schaefer.

''I don't care what's in the report,'' said Mandel. ''Pomerleau's still the commissioner.''

''Yeah,'' said Schaefer. ''We think he's doing a great job.''

Nobody asked why they felt so strongly, but everybody wondered: What in the world does Pomerleau have on them?

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