'Captain you couldn't move' from Northpoint retires BALTIMORE COUNTY

December 23, 1992|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,Staff Writer

Capt. James Scannell is amused by all the talk these days about "community policing."

"That's what we've been doing," he said of his 16 years as "The Law" in eastern Baltimore County.

Not many will argue about that. When the popular precinct captain tried to retire two years ago, community leaders persuaded him to stay -- just as they fought to keep him in the Northpoint station over the years.

Now, however, his grandchildren and the prospect of fishing have lured Jim Scannell into retirement after almost 38 years with the Baltimore County Police Department. As he packed up Thursday, tiny blue Smurfs hung from the wall hooks in his office that once held plaques and citations.

"I guess I run a little bit of a loose ship," the 62-year-old captain said, glancing at the Smurfs with a laugh. The dolls were favors from another of his roles -- Santa Claus, he explained, pulling out a photo of a beaming child and an even jollier Santa Scannell.

"It's been a love affair with this community," he said. "The chief called me the captain you couldn't move."

Police Chief Neil J. Behan agreed. "Many times I wanted to take Jim and put him in other positions, but he didn't want to leave, and they didn't want to lose him. Obviously, it was a marriage between the community and Jim Scannell."

Long a fixture at community meetings in Dundalk, West Inverness, Turners Station, Edgemere and Northpoint, he has worked constantly with residents and business groups, in some cases helping community organizations get started.

"The police can't take care of everything," he said simply. The community has to be part of law enforcement.

Joseph Butler Jr., president of the Turners Station Development Corp., agreed.

"He's worked with us for many years and he comes to all our meetings. He is the best that this community has ever had. He really believes in this community."

"If a teen-ager's doing wrong, he's aware, on top of it," Mr. Butler said. "It's easy to lock people up, but you've got to have an alternative for the youngsters who hang out on these corners."

Thomas Toporovich, a Dundalk resident and former secretary to the County Council, said, "Jim is the backbone of the police-community relations council here. Whenever there was a problem in the community, he was there. He put in unbelievable hours."

In battling drugs, he said, "people in the community are quicker to play their role. He's got the community playing cop, and they don't even know it."

In a department that moves its top officers around, Captain Scannell is a rarity. And while he agreed to keep the captain where he wanted to be, Chief Behan chose Jim Scannell to spearhead several of his pet projects.

In 1987, he was asked to build rapport with private security forces at area malls, colleges and large employers. The shoplifting investigation that resulted led to the breakup of a large-scale city fencing operation. In 1985, he chaired a project that led to an 18 percent reduction in false burglar alarms. He was also a natural choice in 1984 to look at a return to foot patrols, according to fellow police officers.

"It's just officers walking, talking to people and hearing their concerns," Captain Scannell said.

Most recently, Chief Behan read about a Citizens Police Academy -- a program that will give selected community representatives a sample of police training. Again he turned to Captain Scannell to set it up.

"Jim is a very understated individual," Chief Behan said. "Even though he was a field commander with more than enough to do, he was capable of taking on the false alarm problem, the private security project. . . . He's a remarkable person, and I hate to lose him."

Captain Scannell said he learned the value of working with people in Korea, after enlisting in the Army in 1951. During three years, he said, "I often thought about how cheap life was there."

As a staff sergeant taking village people for medical treatment, he didn't speak Korean, but "I found out if you treat people with respect and you communicate, you don't have problems."

When he left Korea in 1954, the village mayor threw a party and had the local English teacher write a letter of appreciation.

He hadn't planned on a law enforcement career, but when he got out of the Army, jobs were scarce. So he joined the county police force in May 1955, walking a beat in Reisterstown, checking the doors of the shops at night.

His career took him to assignments near his home in Catonsville, and to Halethorpe, Towson and Wilkens. He also moved up through the ranks until he made captain in 1976. That was when he was as signed to Dundalk, now called the Northpoint precinct. He's been there ever since.

"When I first came here, we had a lot of problems with bars," he recalled. "We just started to work on them."

His officers logged the numbers of police calls for fights, drugs and other incidents at the trouble spots and made repeated trips to the county liquor board until the places were shut down or turned over to new management.

With 6,700 people per square mile, his turf had the county's highest population density in the late 1970s. The pressures made assault the most common serious offense. But there were smaller issues, too -- such as parking.

"These rowhouses were designed early on, for a one-car family. Now, the cars are everywhere," he said.

Captain Scannell said he'll continue to work part-time as an assistant security supervisor at Security Square Mall because he needs the Social Security credits.

And he doesn't plan to be idle. There are his wife Nancy, his children and grandchildren ranging in age from six months to 13 years old. He'll spend time at his place in Ocean City, making his own shad darts as lures. And there will be "fishing -- all kinds. Wherever there's water: streams, lakes, pond, bay, or the deep sea."

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