Commissioner who rose through ranks failed to articulate his vision for the city One of 7 children, Woods grew up poor

August 05, 1993|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,Staff Writer

No one enjoyed being police commissioner more than Eddie Woods. No one was more uncomfortable on the job, either.

The son of a house cleaner forced to rely on public assistance to feed her seven children, Commissioner Woods took evident pride in his long, up-through-the-ranks climb to the top of the Baltimore Police Department. Yet, once there, he was never able to demonstrate to the city why he belonged in the post.

"I know I'm the right man for this job," he said last winter after a city councilman, upset about the city's record murder rate, called for his resignation. He talked about classes he had taken, about his respect for police officers, about the lack of money. None of it hinted at why he was the right man for the job.

Instead, he said the police commissioner couldn't be held responsible for the city's murder rate. He seemed surprised that a city would turn to him for answers at all. In a city in despair over violence, the police commissioner could never find words of reassurance.

But then, Mr. Woods' strength was never charisma. His detractors say it was not his talent either. Instead, Mr. Woods was durable, an attribute that was tested from birth.

His mother, Inez Woods, was only 17 when she gave birth to Eddie, and she never lived with his father. They lived with her uncle in West Baltimore until she married a man named John Woods. They had six more children, but the marriage broke up and the family moved from apartment to apartment.

Mrs. Woods had to work several jobs and relied on Eddie to be the father figure to the other children. "I had to work all the time, so you had to teach them to love each other," she said.

After graduating from Frederick Douglass High School, Mr. Woods worked in several jobs before becoming a transit bus driver -- and not a particularly successful one.

"He was in danger of losing his job as a driver because of lateness or missing routes," said Mrs. Woods in an interview last winter. "That's when he decided to enter the police force."

Mr. Woods said he was one of only five blacks at the Police Academy in 1959, and once on the street, he quickly encountered the department's racism. Black officers weren't permitted to ride in patrol cars, and they generally were kept out of white neighborhoods.

"There was a feeling in the community that it wasn't right for a black officer to arrest a white person," he recalled in an interview last winter.

During the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, he recalled, he protected from protesters the segregated bars that wouldn't serve him a drink.

"I would refrain from going in there to buy cigarettes," he said. "That was my inner protest to what was going on."

Though Mr. Woods said he enjoyed police work, he didn't think he had a future there as a black man. So he quit to become a Budweiser salesman. The decision, he said, bothered the close-knit group of black officers he left behind. They believed each of them had a responsibility to endure the indignities of the department in order to one day change the situation.

About a year after he left, Mr. Woods ran into Hiram Butler, a black officer and mentor. "He gave to me one of the worst blastings I ever had," Mr. Woods recalled. "When I left him, I felt so whipped. He made me feel so stupid."

Moments later, he ran into another black officer, McNeal Brockington. "And he lit into me, too." Mr. Woods, embarrassed and chastened, returned to the department.

He worked in intelligence first, keeping tabs on various political organizations, including the Black Panthers. Later, he was promoted to sergeant and became a public relations officer in the Central District.

One night in 1971, he said, he was assigned to the Hippodrome Theatre, where Police Commissioner Donald Pomerleau was attending a film debut.

When the movie ended and the crowd poured out, Mr. Woods saw Mr. Pomerleau heading toward a beautiful Cadillac parked in front of the theater. Mr. Woods knew, but Mr. Pomerleau didn't, that the car belonged to a notorious drug dealer. Sensing a public relations disaster if the police commissioner was seen admiring a criminal's car, Mr. Woods hustled over, grabbed Mr. Pomerleau by the elbow, and escorted the surprised commissioner away.

It may have been the most important moment in Mr. Woods' career. Shortly afterward, he was appointed an aide to Mr. Pomerleau, a traditional springboard to promotion. He rose steadily and became deputy commissioner in 1987.

When Police Commissioner Edward J. Tilghman retired in 1989, Mr. Woods was the only black deputy. In a majority black city, many believed Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke had no choice but to appoint Mr. Woods. "Being black gave Eddie the edge," said Harwood Burritt, a white deputy -- and an admirer of Mr. Woods -- who had taken himself out of the running for the top job.

The new commissioner clearly relished the job, working long hours and then attending police-related social functions four or five nights a week. But he wasn't winning many admirers outside the department.

Councilmen complained that they couldn't understand his plan for the department.

"His not being too articulate mattered," said one councilman. "It made it hard for the public to have faith in the guy."

He knew he had a public relations problem and reacted by firing Dennis S. Hill, the department's longtime spokesman. Mr. Hill, he said, wasn't marketing the department well.

But his problems went beyond marketing himself to the outside world. He couldn't, in the end, sell himself to his own rank and file.

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