New police district chiefs take charge in old haunts

April 12, 1994|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,Sun Staff Writer

Long before he went to the police academy, John Gavrilis made a name for himself in the Boys Club boxing rings of Southeast Baltimore. A stocky bull of a kid with a pugilist's broad face and shoulders, he barreled out of the city's Greek quarter on thick legs and into local legend.

On the other side of town, Lenny Hamm was carving out his own reputation as the all-purpose wonder of two undefeated City College basketball teams in 1966-1968. He moved from guard to forward to center on the wings of a growth spurt that turned him into an imposing figure in his Reservoir Hill neighborhood.

Last week, the boxer and the ballplayer -- the fathers of two children each and 20-year veterans of the Baltimore Police Department -- returned to the neighborhoods where they grew up to take over as district police commanders after surprise promotions to the rank of major.

"We're a couple of street kids who came up the hard way in this city," said Maj. Leonard Hamm. "And we've been lucky enough to live out our dreams. I think I can safely speak for both of us in saying that we worked hard to get here but never let ourselves expect it."

Young, aggressive and college-educated, the two cops rose through the ranks one front-line job at a time and largely skipped the administrative assignments that have for years been the fast track to command-level appointments in the department.

They are emblematic of a new generation of leaders that newly appointed Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier says he wants to fill out a command structure dominated by men who are long on bureaucratic acumen but short on ground-level experience as cops.

They also both have backgrounds in police training and internal investigations, two of the new commissioner's top priorities.

Major Gavrilis, 42 -- the new Southeastern District commander -- worked in three different districts as a patrolman, sergeant, lieutenant and captain before his promotion to major March 28. Along the way, he also served in internal affairs, criminal investigations and executive protection.

"I've played ball in just about every neighborhood, boxed in every Boy's Club, lived in a half dozen places and worked all over the city from the best districts to the worst," he said. "I've tried to be the best cop I could be, whether I succeeded every time or not. Those are the lessons I learned growing up in this city."

His parents were Greek immigrants. His father was a house painter who ruled his family with a firm hand and an eye on the future.

Coming back to the Southeastern District -- back to the rowhouse neighborhoods of Little Italy, Highlandtown and Canton, of Fells Point, O'Donnell Heights and Colgate -- six months after his father's death is a bittersweet arrival, Major Gavrilis said.

L "He would have enjoyed this very much," he said. "I'm home."

Major Hamm, 45 -- the new Central District commander -- joined the force in 1974 at a time when black, college-educated men like him were few and far between in the department. He spent the next six years pounding a foot patrol in Reservoir Hill before moving to the Western District as a sergeant.

For four more years, he supervised beat officers in the Western District and the Inner Harbor, then got his first high-profile assignment: the department's SWAT team. After that came stints in criminal intelligence, the police academy and on the commissioner's staff.

"Most of the young kids around here, I trained them, and that's about 30 percent of the department right now," he said. "Personally, I've worked with another 10 percent of the guys out here on the street when we were all coming up together. Whatever else I've done as a cop, nobody can say I haven't spent my time in the trenches."

Indeed, he grew up in the trenches, from the iron-bound turf of Cherry Hill in the city's industrial south -- hemmed in by the tracks of the old B&O railroad -- to hardscrabble Whitelock Street in Reservoir Hill.

"My mom worked at Harbor Hospital for 46 years as a cleaning lady, basically," he said. "My dad worked all over. The B&O. Allied Chemical. The Social Security Administration. It took both of them working all the time to keep that solid foundation under us."

He tries to pass on the lessons to his 16-year-old son.

"Today, they have so many choices to make that we never dreamed of," he said. "The guns. The drugs. I don't need to remind him about the odds against him being young and black and male in this society. The ironic thing is, he worries more about me than I do about him."

The perils of the Central District are more than meet the eye. From the politically powerful downtown business groups and the well-off enclave of Bolton Hill to the beleaguered residents of Reservoir Hill and Upton, the new commander's preserve encompasses a wide range of haves and have-nots.

But, like Major Gavrilis, he knows the turf well.

Both men promise big things in the coming months. Echoing the new chief, they vow to make life miserable for the drug dealers and violent criminals in their districts and to be visible at churches and civic meetings -- "to be everywhere, all the time," as Major Hamm puts it.

On Thursday, he led a sweep of dealers in the 600 block of Hoffman Street that resulted in the arrest of 25 people for possession of heroin, cocaine and drug paraphernalia.

Major Gavrilis said similar operations are planned for neighborhoods of his district that have been afflicted for years by PCP dealing.

"The one thing that we've always had going for us in this city is that people in our neighborhoods feel a connection to their district station," he said. "That's our first job: to keep the faith with our residents."

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