The Commissioner and Me

January 26, 1992|By ROGER TWIGG | ROGER TWIGG,Roger Twigg is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

In the early 1970s, as I began my journalistic career at The Sun, Donald D. Pomerleau -- who died last Sunday at 76 -- was the police commissioner. He was in the early stages of transforming a corrupt and disorganized police department into one that would eventually be recognized as one of the country's best.

I attracted the commissioner's attention with articles suggesting that officers in the department -- on orders from their supervisors -- were downgrading major crimes to make the crime statistics look better.

In another series, I told how people were being picked up on the streets "for questioning" and held an inordinate amount of time in police lockups.

And then there was the incident in which two drunken officers emptied their service revolvers at a couple of kids working on a car in Southeast Baltimore. The kids lived to tell their story, but they and neighbors were unable to convince other officers that it indeed occurred. When it appeared in print, the two officers resigned.

As the articles increased, so did Commissioner Pomerleau's blood pressure. He decided to summon me to his office on the fourth floor of the old police headquarters building -- now the site of a small park on Fallsway directly across from the current headquarters facility.

I had heard all the stories and rumors about his cursing, about how he tried to belittle those who spoke with, about how he once pulled his entire command staff together and dared them to deny that he was indeed the sole boss.

Now I was about to come face-to-face with this man, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps, who had everyone shivering in his wake. Was I scared? You bet.

As I entered his spacious office he was seated at an equally large desk with a huge leather chair. A cigar was burning in the ashtray and he was inhaling deeply on a Camel cigarette.

We shook hands and quickly got down to business.

He denied downgrading crimes. He denied holding people too long in lockups. And to prove he was a righteous leader, he had gotten rid of the two officers who shot at the kids in Southeast Baltimore.

Then he said "I don't see why we can't get along? After all we

are both former Marines."

How, I wondered, did he know I had been in the Marines?

Several days later as I drove home toward Glen Burnie, I noticed a city police car behind me on Hanover Street. I noticed the same car as I headed south on Ritchie Highway -- and again as I turned east on Furnace Branch Road.

In fact, I noticed other police cars -- some of them marked -- trail me as I headed home each evening. It eventually became a cat-and-mouse game that amused me.

Then one weekend, another reporter, Bob Wade, used The Sun's telephone at police headquarters to call in a story. When he used the phone again, he heard a recording of his previous conversation with the paper.

On my next visit to Commissioner Pomerleau's office, I was not surprised when he said, "I know where you go, what you do and who you see."

One thing was as sure as death and taxes. Any time I wrote an article critical of the department, Commissioner Pomerleau was sure to send for me.

Such as the time I noticed his patrol cars were equipped with studded snow tires well beyond the date that -- by law -- they should have been removed. A photographer took a picture of one of the patrol cars from an angle that showed not only the studded snow tires, but the crosswalk where it was illegally parked. And the adjacent fire hydrant. And the no stopping sign.

No sooner had I arrived in the press room at police headquarters the following day the phone began to ring. "Get your [expletive], [expletive], [expletive] up here," he yelled and slammed down the phone.

As I walked into his office, he leaned over his desk toward me and shouted, "First it was this [expletive] story, then this other [expletive] story, and now its this [expletive] [expletive] studded snow tire story." He punctuated each remark by slamming his fist on the desk.

"Don't you know we have nothing to do with those cars?" he said. "They are handled by the central garage."

"But," I reasoned, "if you are violating the law, how can you possibly enforce it? Your officers have given other motorists tickets for driving with studded snow tires."

The commissioner gave me a puzzled look, took a couple deep draws on his cigarette and another from his cigar, called in his administrative assistant and ordered him to put out an immediate order to officers not to enforce the studded tire law until the tires had been removed from all police vehicles.

It was comforting to know that I was able to win one of the skirmishes and that he had to admit that he was wrong.

The adversary relationship continued, and other confrontations took place.

Such as the time I was covering a meeting of the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Salt Lake City and ran into Commissioner Pomerleau. Surprised and angered by my presence, he swung his briefcase at me and yelled a few more expletives.

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