Police chief's quiet approach

Livesay's style similar to Robey's, colleague says

January 24, 1999|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Shortly after joining the Howard County Police Department in 1972, a young officer met a promising corporal, James N. Robey, beginning a relationship that molded their careers -- and the police force.

That officer was Wayne Livesay, who grew up poor, rolling sod during summers and laboring as a janitor while a student at Glenelg High School. After graduating and being laid off from a factory job, he joined the Howard County force, where he excelled, rising quickly through the ranks -- always on the heels of Robey, who became his mentor.

Livesay, who was sworn in as chief last month, shares more than friendship with Robey. Like Robey, the new county executive, Livesay does not rally the troops with fiery speeches but listens contemplatively, weighing options before making decisions.

"They approach problems in very much the same way," said Maj. Jeff Spaulding, the deputy chief. "They're pretty much direct, head-on, gather the information."

Livesay offers modest proposals for the future. And though the 47-year-old chief faces several challenges, including retaining officers while launching a community-oriented policing program, most residential leaders hope he maintains the status quo while pushing Robey and the County Council to hire more officers.

"He should keep on doing what he's doing," said Cecilia Januszkiewicz, the Columbia Council representative from Long Reach village. "I do think they should get more officers, though."

To become chief of the 313-member department, Livesay had to overcame adversity.

He grew up in western Howard, the eldest of five brothers. His father worked at a flour mill and was a custodian, his mother was a nurse's aide. The family didn't have indoor plumbing until 1963.

At 13, Livesay lied to obtain a work permit and later swept halls as a full-time janitor while a student at Glenelg, working from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. daily.

Two weeks after graduating in 1969, he married his high school sweetheart, Brenda.

After being laid off from his "dream job" of stamping metal sheets, Livesay sold vacuum cleaners door-to-door to support his wife and two young sons.

Then, at the suggestion of a former co-worker, he joined the Howard County police.

"I can't say I took the job to help people," he said. "It was the security."

At the police academy, Livesay exhibited a trait familiar to his friends: determination. He broke a finger but instead of reporting the injury he hid it, afraid his supervisors would kick him out.

He remembers patrolling U.S. 1 before joining Howard County's first tactical squad, with Robey as his supervisor.

"He's the kind of guy anyone would want working with him," said Robey, who oversaw a squad that responded to such intense situations as armed suspects barricaded in homes.

Team members were close. At first, without funding for training, Livesay and the other four squad members ran, played basketball and lifted weights at Mount Hebron High School in their spare time -- usually after their shifts ended at midnight.

By 1975, the department agreed to fund two hours of training a day.

The squad members spent most of their time training together, working details late at night and socializing.

Livesay could always be trusted to watch your back and to stay calm under pressure.

"He had a really cool demeanor, a way of dealing with people," said Jack Burke, a retired captain. "Not everybody can do it. Wayne was always cool."

Back in his tactical days, Livesay handled more than tough work situations -- he listened to friends' problems and gave them advice.

"He's a guy who sits back and looks and listens," said Charles M. Ellenberger, a retired officer and member of that first team. "Wayne you could always talk to because he never seemed to have any problems of his own."

Livesay demonstrates those same traits today.

He still works hard, awakening every morning at 5 to run, working by 6: 30 a.m. and often laboring 12 hours before attending a community meeting where he's peppered with heated questions.

One night last month in Oakland Mills, 50 people fired salvos of questions at Livesay. Why wasn't there a police officer at my bus stop yesterday morning? Why aren't there enough officers patrolling the village center?

Livesay answered calmly yet made no promises.

Today, high-ranking officers say they feel comfortable walking into his office, asking for help and then getting an answer. Sometimes, after being criticized or punished, they don't feel bad when they walk out of his office.

"When you're in his office for a less-than-desired reason, you feel like you're getting chewed [out] in a decent way," a high-ranking officer said.

Few would criticize Livesay on the record, but some complained he could be inflexible at times -- at odds with what many described as his open-minded nature.

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