Dennis P. Mello, 84, Baltimore police captain

February 08, 1997|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,SUN STAFF

As a Baltimore police officer, Dennis P. Mello never paid much attention to rank or color. Being a black police captain meant nothing if the city was unsafe and its residents unhappy.

That philosophy led other officers to refer to Mr. Mello, 84, who died Tuesday of cancer at his West Baltimore home, as a "policeman's policeman."

"He was a good policeman who enjoyed doing good, effective police work," said Maj. Alvin Winkler, a longtime member of the city Police Department. "He cared a lot about others."

Mr. Mello, who lived in the Ashburton section of West Baltimore, also broke several color barriers in his nearly three decades on the force before he retired in 1973:

He was appointed in 1950 to work in the state's attorney's office, becoming the first black officer in the city courthouse.

In 1957, he became the first black uniformed sergeant in the department's patrol division.

He was the first black to reach the rank of captain and was given command of the Western District police station in 1965.

But being a "first" never fazed Mr. Mello, friends and relatives said.

"You'd never know he had moved up or been promoted because he took it all in stride," said Officer Donald "Chick" Matthews, a longtime friend and former colleague. "He'd act like, 'Well, it's a job.' He'd just keep on going in that gentle glide he had."

An East Baltimore native and the fourth of 18 siblings, Mr. Mello graduated from Frederick Douglass High School in 1929 and attended Loyola College.

He joined the Police Department in 1944, becoming the department's sixth black officer.

"He had a deep inner sense of wanting to help people," said his grandson, Brian Peters of Baltimore. "He liked working with youths and encouraging them."

Mr. Winkler, whose city police career began in 1968, said ranking officers were generally unapproachable by patrol officers at the period when Mr. Mello was promoted. But not Mr. Mello.

"Captain Mello was an individual who liked to be around everyone," Mr. Winkler said. "He'd come out in the parking lot and talk to everyone, all of the officers. I remember he used to call everybody 'brother,' and it didn't matter if they were black, white or whatever."

Mr. Mello's career wasn't without controversy. In 1973, he and several other Western District officers were indicted on federal charges of taking $50 a month in protection payoffs from gamblers.

The ensuing trials dragged on for two years before Mr. Mello was found innocent by two federal court juries in 1974 and 1975.

He retired soon after the indictments.

"But I'm not mad at anybody," Mr. Mello said afterward. "Of course, it's a terrible thing to do to a person. I sit here and glorify the jury system. I've been in this for 30 years and it works, the judicial system works."

Because of the rank he achieved, Mr. Mello was seen as a role model for young black officers.

"All of the young black officers wanted to be like him and get to where he was," said Vernon Roberts, a former officer. "No one thought it was possible for blacks to get to captain until Captain Mello showed it could be done."

L Mr. Mello married Belle DeShields in 1932. She died in 1988.

A Mass of Christian burial is scheduled for 10: 30 a.m. today at St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church, 1501 E. Oliver St.

He is survived by a son, Earl Mello of Columbia; a daughter, Marlene Peters of Columbia; two brothers, Joseph Mello and Henry Mello, both of Baltimore; five sisters, Mary Coleman, Geneva Himan, Marian Forde, Corene Stokes and Gertrude Lewis, all of Baltimore; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Pub Date: 2/08/97

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