Rookie officer's top fear: Getting lost

March 07, 1994|By Glenn Small | Glenn Small,Sun Staff Writer

Michael J. Malone, 26, sits behind the wheel of Car 276, rolling in the rain along Pulaski Highway. It's his first day as a Baltimore County police officer.

Like other officers, he's working without a contract. His colleagues haven't had a raise in three years. They're paying more for health insurance and still fuming over furloughs without pay -- despite a no-furlough clause in their contract. Morale is low.

None of that bothers Michael J. Malone this day. He has other things on his mind -- like trying not to get lost.

"That's my biggest fear . . .," he says.

"I don't know the area too well."

The first assignment for Officer Malone, a Harford County resident, is the White Marsh Precinct, a tough patch of turf that lies roughly between Belair Road and Pulaski Highway from Harford County to a point near the city line.

He began duty at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, less than 24 hours after he was sworn in during a police academy graduation ceremony at Parkville High School. He was one of 24 new officers.

Their presence takes some of the pressure off the county's short-handed police force. About 200 fewer police officers work in the county now than two years ago. Eighty-nine officers retired or resigned last year.

Part of the problem was caused by the county's fiscal crisis, which prompted County Executive Roger B. Hayden to furlough employees for several days without pay in 1992 and then to lay off hundreds last year -- although no sworn officers were laid off.

In the fall of 1991, county police stopped hiring because of budget constraints and temporarily dismantled their recruiting office.

At the time, Officer Malone was a Towson State University senior, waiting to hear if his application would be accepted. He had to wait two years.

The force was further depleted at the beginning of 1992, when 120 officers took advantage of early retirement incentives, according to Sgt. Stephen R. Doarnberger, a police spokesman.

At that time, the force had an authorized strength of 1,580. Mr. Hayden cut 100 of those positions from the budget. But the number of officers has been far lower than the authorized strength. Today, 1,365 officers are working, with an additional 44 recruits in training.

While many officers are working overtime to fill out patrols, more help is on the way with the class of 40 to 45 recruits that begins March 19. And, for the first time, Baltimore County is accepting applications from police officers from other jurisdictions. A class for 25 transfers will begin in June.

Officer Malone is aware of low morale.

"They told us about that in the academy," he says. But right now, with the promise of a lifelong dream being fulfilled, he isn't thinking about contracts or furloughs.

"Most of us in our class, we just wanted the job so bad for so many years, we didn't look at the negatives. I look at it as something I always wanted to do. It's not the money. It's what makes me happy."

The first day of his $23,928-a-year job begins with roll call, where Sgt. Richard Handshoe teases him by announcing that a minor traffic accident Officer Malone had in training was deemed "preventable" by the higher-ups.

"I've got bad news, Mike," Sergeant Handshoe says, handing Officer Malone a sheet of paper. "You've been terminated the first day on the job. This is terrible."

Officer Malone laughs with the rest of the squad, but he's obviously embarrassed by the accident that occurred Jan. 28, when the patrol car he was driving slid into a parked truck on an icy road.

Once on patrol, driving very carefully on Pulaski Highway, he takes more ribbing from Officer Jerry Reider, the five-year veteran assigned to show him the ropes.

"The first day I let him drive, it was icy and he had an accident," Officer Reider says. "So now he drives like an old lady."

For his first few weeks on the job, Officer Malone, like his academy classmates, will continue to patrol with an experienced officer.

Despite 27 weeks of intensive training, he says, there is still much to master -- like how to simultaneously listen to his police radio, drive the squad car, and send and receive messages on its portable computer. He says he still needs work there.

Throughout his first shift, lessons pop up everywhere. He and Officer Reider go to Towson to pick up a squad car that belongs to Sgt. John Weber, the White Marsh officer wounded after making a traffic stop several weeks ago. Sergeant Weber's car, with bullet holes repaired, must be brought back to the precinct.

Later, the rookie responds to his first accident, a fender-bender on Pulaski Highway at Contractors Lane -- the spot along U.S. 40 where K-9 Officer James E. Beck was critically wounded last fall while making a traffic stop.

But there's no time to dwell on the shooting. Standing in a light rain without his coat, Officer Malone interviews both drivers and begins writing an accident report. He is careful and thorough.

Just as he's getting comfortable and thinking he's handling the accident well, Officer Reider chimes in.

"Don't dilly-dally around with these people," he says. "The important thing is to clean up this roadway in rush-hour traffic."

Officer Malone doesn't take offense. Later, the veteran compliments the rookie several times.

By the beginning of his second day, Officer Malone already is more comfortable.

"I feel a little bit better," he says. "Some of the pressure is off now."

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