Oh, give us a home where the Pomerleaus roam

Baltimore Glimpses

March 15, 1994|By GILBERT SANDLER

THE Baltimore news this winter has featured yards of copy about the new police commissioner, Thomas C. Frazier, and the series of winter storms that brought education and commerce to a halt.

The combination makes Glimpses think of another serious February storm and another commissioner.

The year was 1979. The storm was a 22-inch affair that began on Sunday afternoon, Feb. 18, and lasted well into Monday morning. The commissioner was Donald D. Pomerleau, who mounted a horse and made his way through the piled-up snow like some kind of lone rider in a Siberian Western. To complete the picture, Pomerleau donned a cowboy hat. (He was, after all, a native of northeastern Montana, where winters are not unlike those in Siberia.)

But Pomerleau really was after the bad guys. He was the perfect sheriff to lead a small posse of like-minded mounted officers in search of . . . . looters.

The city lay helpless under the snow. Some of it probably was Pomerleau's fault. As the city's chief law enforcer, he had not equipped enough police cars with chains and snow tires, so that thieves foraged brazenly among stores in East and West Baltimore. (Hundreds of drivers had abandoned their cars, which made it even harder for police to get around.) National Guardsmen with four-wheel-drive vehicles were called in to help. Observing the anarchy on Pennsylvania Avenue, Officer David Buschman said, "It's World War III."

But back to Pomerleau, his cowboy hat askew, riding with bravado through the snow. Baltimoreans should not have been surprised by Pomerleau as cowboy. That's the way he'd conducted business in his 15 years as commissioner. His was an individualistic, take-charge personality and operating style that enraged and upset many.

When hundreds of his officers went on strike in 1974, Pomerleau fired 55 of them and decertified the union, essentially killing it. In 1976, a state Senate committee criticized him for knowingly allowing illegal wire taps on people not suspected of committing crimes. In April 1968, during the Baltimore riots, Gov. Spiro T. Agnew summoned local black leaders to the state office building and lectured them condescendingly. He was accompanied by three uniformed men who symbolized authority -- National Guard Gen. George M. Gelston, State Police Superintendent Robert J. Lally and Donald D. Pomerleau. Much later, in defending his department in court against charges of sexual discrimination, the commissioner referred to women officers as "little balls of fluff."

Pomerleau resigned in 1981. He was said to be "tired." He lived another 11 years on his farm in northern Virginia, dying in 1992.

Pomerleau was praised in death for having modernized the Baltimore Police Department and for having rooted out the corruption that had plagued it in the '60s. He was remembered also for his gruff, imperious style.

And for his mid-day ride on the snowy streets of Baltimore.

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