The Man on a White Horse

January 21, 1992

Donald D. Pomerleau had his strengths; he had his flaws. But Baltimore owes a debt of gratitude to Mr. Pomerleau, who died Sunday at 76. As the city's police commissioner from 1966 to 1984, he took a corrupt and demoralized department and built it into a model force that could handle its crime-fighting functions as well as such crowd-control challenges of the era as civil rights demonstrations, the riots of 1968, anti-war demonstrations and the first police strike in a major American city in a half-century. He did all that with a firm hand but also with a sense of proportion. As a result, Baltimore never experienced the kind of explosive polarization that flared up in many other American urban centers.

A former Marine who rose from a private to a lieutenant colonel, Mr. Pomerleau was a man who made sure everyone knew he was in charge. Those who went against him paid dearly.

After about 600 officers walked off the job for four days, Mr. Pomerleau retaliated with swiftness and fury. He fired 91 probationary patrolmen, demoted 29 police agents, suspended 26 officers active in the union, transferred 53 detectives -- and broke the strike and the union.

Mr. Pomerleau often projected a macho image. When most of the department's vehicles were immobilized by a 20-inch snowfall in 1979, he climbed on a horse and, donning a cowboy hat, patrolled city streets with other mounted officers. Two years later, he was slapped with a sex discrimination suit after referring to women as "little balls of fluff."

Like many other imperious men in powerful positions, Mr. Pomerleau occasionally felt he was not bound by the rules others had to follow. This became evident in 1974, when the News American reported the police department's Inspectional Services Division had compiled secret dossiers on 60 organizations, 99 men and 212 women who were considered subversive but who had not been accused of any crime. The list included politicians, public officials, clergymen, journalists and community activists.

Mr. Pomerleau's 18-year tenure was one of the longest ones for any big-city police chief of that turbulent time. It also was long enough for the department to begin showing signs of new stagnation. Rapid technological changes have only underscored the need for innovation, but subsequent police chiefs have not had the courage or vision to make the necessary reforms. Baltimore could again use a commissioner as resolute as the early Don Pomerleau.

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