Behan announces exit from force he remade Police chief leaves with blast at NRA

March 17, 1993|By Robert A. Erlandson and Patrick Gilbert | Robert A. Erlandson and Patrick Gilbert,Staff Writers Staff writer Glenn Small contributed to this article.

Even as he announced his retirement yesterday after 17 years on the job, Baltimore County Police Chief Cornelius J. Behan didn't bend.

He took advantage of the forum for another blast at a longtime foe, the National Rifle Association, calling it "the only bar to sensible gun laws in this country. Without the NRA there would be no problem."

Chief Behan's no-holds-barred stance on gun control, his insistence on professionalism and discipline, and development of innovative techniques such as community policing earned him and international and local reputation as one of the top cops of his time.

Yet Chief Behan, 68, who was recruited from a top post in New York City, said his most important accomplishment was developing the 1,400-member Baltimore County department to a point that would allow someone from within to succeed him. He realized that yesterday when County Executive Roger B. Hayden named Col. Michael D. Gambrill as Chief Behan's successor in the $83,129-a-year job. Colonel Gambrill, 50, has been in charge of day-to-day operations since 1987. He will take over when Chief Behan officially steps down Sept. 20.

"I told them they would never have to look outside for another chief," Chief Behan recalled telling the County Council in 1977. "This is the culmination of that."

Chief Behan, who said yesterday was the birthday of his wife, Patricia, said he has no post-retirement plans but hopes to remain active as a spokesman for community policing and gun control.

Mr. Hayden credited Chief Behan with reorganizing and modernizing the department to cope with changing patterns of crime and community development in the 1980s and '90s. He said the chief transformed the department "into not only a strong crime-fighting organization but also an excellent crime-preventing organization."

Among other innovations, Chief Behan created COPE units of officers trained to deal with neighborhood crises, ease tensions and fears and bring in needed resources. They became models of community policing.

But his influence reached far beyond Baltimore County, as he quietly became one of a handful of policemen who set the national agenda for local departments around the nation and outside its borders.

"He'll leave a major legacy in the profession of law enforcement," said John E. Eck, acting executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, the national police think tank. "He showed a tremendous amount of courage to stand up for responsible gun control, for which he took a lot of heat both locally and nationally."

"Neil is well respected throughout the country for his innovative thinking in law enforcement," added Dan Rosenblatt, executive director of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

In fact, Chief Behan quietly turned down a number of offers from major cities, including Los Angeles and Chicago, which invited him to apply to head their departments, and New York, where two search committees recommended him for commissioner. He also twice rejected invitations to become Maryland State Police superintendent and state secretary of corrections.

Chief Behan was recruited to Baltimore County in 1977 to replace Chief Joseph Gallen, who retired from a demoralized department in a blaze of controversy.

Mr. Behan was New York's top uniformed officer at the time, and county officials initially sought him out to ask his advice on how to conduct a search. They eventually settled on him.

"We could not come up with one negative comment. We got such things as 'He's a straight arrow and the best cop in New York City'," recalled Tom Toporovich, who as County Council secretary led the search team.

Retired Capt. James Scannell commanded the Dundalk-North Point Precinct during Chief Behan's entire tenure and served as a point man on many community policing projects.

"It was chaos during Gallen's time. Chief Behan straightened that out and brought the department forward. He decentralized and let you run your own command," Captain Scannell recalled.

"Chief Behan set the tone in his first week on the job," recalled Mary Basso, president of the Association of Baltimore County Councils.

"He showed up to a meeting of the Randallstown Community Council and he not only talked frankly with us about his own ideas, he listened and took back our input. He has never stopped doing that."

Dr. Ella White Campbell, past president of the Liberty Road Community Council, said she always found Chief Behan interested in the welfare of the county's black communities.

"From time to time there were things that went wrong between the department and the black community, but each time he stepped in and corrected the situation without hesitation," she said.

He imposed a strict code of conduct on the force, which has not always made him popular with rank-and-file officers. Some found him remote and said he spent too much time on national and international police affairs. But if he wasn't always liked, he was respected.

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