An officer's last patrol Veteran: After 23 years on the streets -- and in the parks -- Sgt. John Belding has decided it's time to call it a career.

November 30, 1998|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

For 23 years, Howard County police Sgt. John Belding struggled to keep his easygoing nature as he investigated 67 fatal traffic accidents and responded to hundreds of messy domestic disputes.

Even when motorists insulted him during traffic stops and society placed ever more demands on its police officers, Belding kept his perspective by taking long foot patrols on nature trails and working on model trains after grueling 12-hour days.

But the job, and its stresses, finally overcame the 52-year-old who took his last patrol along "The Boulevard" -- U.S. 1 -- yesterday and retired.

"I wouldn't call it burnout," he said while walking along a Savage nature trail. "It's high frustration, really. Being on the street 20 to 25 years, that's enough. After that you're tempting fate."

When he joined the small county police force of 90 officers in 1975, they responded to 30,000 calls from 90,000 residents. The force has swelled to 315 officers, who responded to more than 100,000 calls from 230,000 residents in 1997.

And as Howard County changed -- Belding remembers U.S. 29 having two-lane stretches -- its residents did, too.

They expect more for their taxes, said Belding, a thin man of average height with a graying mustache who keeps a Mickey Mouse pen in his shirt pocket.

They ask officers to fill parental roles, like making little Johnny go to school and do his homework -- something Belding was not trained to do.

"I sometimes wish people would take more responsibility for themselves," said Belding, who will soon begin working at a Columbia liquor store he co-owns.

He recalled a recent traffic stop during which the driver insulted him over a $25 seat belt violation.

That man, Belding said, symbolizes his frustrations with the job.

During the past eight years, Belding has enjoyed patrolling "The Boulevard" with its cheap motels, fast-food restaurants, bars, prostitutes and wanderers because he enjoys meeting and helping people.

Yesterday at 9 a.m., he eased his patrol car out of the Southern District police station for the last time and drove toward U.S. 1.

He checked a burning tractor trailer in Jessup, then headed toward North Laurel before going to Savage.

At the Savage Mill Trail, he began a final foot patrol.

He said he goes there often to stroll along the Patuxent River and enjoy the sounds of water crashing over rocks. The scenery helps him focus after responding to husband-wife spats.

"When you get older, your patience declines," he said, "especially when you see the same frequent fliers [repeat offenders] over and over again."

A girl holding leaves approaches and Belding stops her to talk. When he describes the leaves as from oak trees, not poplars, the girl nods and smiles.

"He seems cool," said Amandine Gouin, 10. "I usually don't see police officers in the park. I usually see them directing traffic or arresting people."

An unusual background

Nothing in Belding's early life suggested he would be a police officer.

Born in Syracuse, N.Y., he moved with his family to Baltimore County in 1948. He graduated from Woodlawn High School in 1964 and earned a bachelor's degree in arboriculture and park management from the University of Massachusetts in 1967.

After a brief stint in the Navy, Belding took a job with the Rouse Co. in Columbia inspecting houses.

A few years later, he joined the Howard County Police Department, he said, for the job security and to serve the public, something he already did as a volunteer firefighter.

He and his wife, Lee, an interior decorator, were married in 1980 and have a 17-year-old daughter.

Belding's first assignment as an officer was patrolling Columbia, where he lived. Three years later, he was assigned to the department's traffic section.

Garnering respect

Former colleagues remember a thorough investigator.

"He was someone who could be counted on," said retired Sgt. Tim Porter, who supervised Belding in the traffic section.

"There was no question that when something needed to be done and John did it, it would be done well," he said.

In 1988, Belding again became a patrol officer. He was promoted to sergeant in 1990 and enjoys the respect of his officers.

"He is easy to talk to," said Pfc. Vic Broccolino. "He'll back you up, and his answers to your questions never make you feel like you asked a stupid question."

He was named police officer of the year in 1995, 1996 and 1997 by Columbia Magazine.

Today, Belding will hand in his badge and gun.

Pub Date: 11/30/98

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