Station makes police blue

Precinct: Towson officers, who complain of inadequate facilities, are expected to move into a new station house by next year.

April 05, 1999|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

If promises were dollars, Baltimore County police officers in Towson would have enough to build a new station house a dozen times over.

Instead, Towson's finest are squeezed in the 72-year-old Spanish colonial brick structure with the green-tiled roof, baroque spiraled columns and swan's neck pediment surrounding its double doors.

The somewhat dainty building is rather ill-suited for police work.

Prisoners are handcuffed temporarily to steel wall poles in hallways because the building has no usable jail cells. "We can't keep prisoners overnight because our cells have lead paint," said Officer Kathy Kramer. "We still rinse prisoners who were pepper-sprayed off outside with a garden hose."

The ceiling leaks, the heating is sauna-like, and the precinct's only security system is locked doors and a Plexiglas barrier. Officers have taped cardboard over a door window to keep the public from eyeing prisoners.

"This place is a dump, it's a pigsty, and it's falling down around our ears," said Officer Gary Jacque, a 10-year member of the precinct, which was added to the Maryland Historical Trust's inventory in 1978.

"Look, you can't be quaint in police work," he said.

It's no surprise that officers are eager, yet skeptical, about the county's latest promise for a $5.1 million, two-story precinct.

"They said we were getting a new precinct since the day I started here," said Officer Charles Knott, who has worked in Towson for 27 years. "I don't even think about it anymore."

But county officials promise this is the year.

Construction on Susquehanna Avenue is to start in August on a brick building, which will be equipped with prisoner holding tanks, security cameras, a separate entrance for prisoners, computers, showers and an elevator.

The Towson Precinct on Washington Avenue was one of six police stations built in the 1920s, according to Robert Deale Jr., a former county police officer who wrote his master's thesis on the history of the department. Of those buildings, Towson's is the only one still used as a police precinct.

The 14-room station, which served as police headquarters until 1961, was built for $3,900 in 1927. More than a decade later, county officials shelled out $869 to build the second floor, according to the inventory form written by county historian John McGrain in 1988.

The building holds many stories.

Like the New Year's Eve fire in 1946 that killed a 68-year-old charged with intoxication and a 19-year-old charged with falsifying his age in an attempt to purchase alcohol.

Drunken Orioles superstars have nursed hangovers while detained in the hallways.

The precinct has also seen the likes of 16-year-old Benjamin Scott Garris, who was arrested and convicted for the fatal stabbing of a Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital counselor in 1995.

In the heart of the county seat, the precinct often has been picketed -- once in 1969 after the arrest of six Vietnam War demonstrators who protested at Vice President Spiro T. Agnew's daughter's wedding at a nearby church.

Over the years, county residents have turned in discarded mortar rounds at the precinct, prompting officials to evacuate the building while bomb squads checked them. Once, two bank executives took a suspicious package to the precinct, and the area was evacuated while a bomb squad robot blew it up.

Sentimentality aside, the officers say they wouldn't miss the pigeons that roost above the doors, leaving an unappealing mess on the marble steps. To scare away the birds, officers used wire to hang a wooden owl above the pediment where a stone pineapple, the traditional symbol of hospitality, also sits.

But hardly a man or woman in blue wouldn't give up those experiences for the smell of new paint, new furniture and equipment and the feel of warm air blowing from heating vents by next year.

County budget officials say construction is due to be completed in December 2000.

Plans to build a precinct were pushed aside in recent years when not enough money was available for other county needs, such as school construction.

Precinct officers aren't tossing away the books they use to prop open old windows during the summer. And they certainly aren't counting on modern jail cells yet.

"You know how difficult it is talking on the phone or radio while prisoners chained by the desk are yelling and screaming?" asked Officer Steve Matthews, a 12-year veteran of the Towson Precinct. "Barney Miller would love this place."

Pub Date: 4/05/99

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