Md. Deputy of the Year is 17-year Howard veteran Communication is the key, he says

August 31, 1993|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

Howard County Deputy Sheriff Rodney Eugene Stem is great with kids, sympathetic to people in trouble and can take care of himself in dangerous situations.

Now he's Maryland Deputy Sheriff of the Year.

A 17-year veteran of the Howard County Sheriff's Office, Sergeant Stem will be honored at the Maryland Sheriffs' Association Conference in Ocean City on Sept. 11.

He and Officer Bruce Lohr of the Howard County Police Department made headlines in October when they rescued one of the most decorated troopers in the state police force from a pair of drug suspects on Interstate 95 near Havre de Grace.

The suspects had knocked the trooper to the ground and were struggling to get his gun when Sergeant Stem and Officer Lohr came to his aid. "If it weren't for them, I wouldn't be here today," the trooper said later.

Although Sergeant Stem has received many honors before and since the October rescue, "his best professional accomplishment is in the area of sensitivity and multi-cultural relations," said Howard County Sheriff Michael A. Chicuchiolo.

"I'm a frustrated teacher," Sergeant Stem says. "Nothing is more satisfying than going to the schools and talking to the kids about basic human values" -- something he does often. He is also in demand as a sensitivity trainer for adults.

"The distrust between communities and the police needs to break down," he said. "It's a national crisis. We are accenting the things that break us apart."

Sergeant Stem seeks to reverse that trend by going into the classroom and talking candidly. "We need to let kids know we have bad cops just like we have bad priests, bad attorneys and bad newspaper reporters," he said.

Like the "millions of kids who are behaving themselves and not getting attention . . . most cops treat people with dignity and respect," he tells students. "We have a lot more in common than we have differences. We cut our grass, cry at funerals, have the same problems that they have."

What he preaches in the schools, Sergeant Stem also seeks to practice on the job. As a civil process supervisor, he is responsible for tenant evictions.

"It's difficult," he said. "Even though you try to provide TLC and treat them with dignity, the bottom line is that you're taking from them the only home they know."

He is very fortunate, Sergeant Stem said, never to have been later threatened by a person he has helped evict or by a criminal he delivered for trial.

"Most of the time you are dealing with a humbled individual," he said. "You learn to take different steps with different people, but you are always on guard."

A law enforcement officer can't afford to let personal feelings get the way when guarding accused criminals, no matter how heinous the crime, he said. Most of the time, "law enforcement techniques kick in. You have to be professional. If you can't deal with it, you get a replacement."

Born in Hanover, Pa., because Carroll County General Hospital didn't exist then, Sergeant Stem grew up in Baltimore County. Twelve days after graduating from Franklin High School, he enlisted in the Air Force.

"I was 17 1/2 and scared," he said. The Vietnam War was at its height and many of his friends had been killed. He was assigned to a medical unit in Texas.

He got into law enforcement by accident, he said, because security jobs were more available than anything else when he left the Air Force. He took a job as a security officer with a department store and entered Towson State University, graduating in 1975 with a degree in criminology and sociology.

He entered graduate school at Towson State immediately, earning a master's degree in American minority relations. He was allowed to take a third of his curriculum -- black studies and women's studies -- at Morgan State University. He joined the Howard County sheriff's department in 1976.

In addition to his work with the Howard County Schools and the police academy, Sergeant Stem, 41, serves on the governor's advisory committee on race, religious, and ethnic bias; coaches his son's sports teams, and is a member of the vestry of All Saints Episcopal Church in Reisterstown.

The Maryland Council of the Knights of Columbus selected Sergeant Stem earlier this year as the first recipient of its police officer of the year award.

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