Battaglia, former chief of city police, dies at 85

He established a fund to aid officers in need

May 04, 1999|By Jacques Kelly and Rafael Alvarez | Jacques Kelly and Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

Frank J. Battaglia -- Baltimore's mild-mannered "Batman" in blue who rose from the rank of patrolman to commissioner of the city police department -- died yesterday of complications of a stroke and liver cancer at a Towson retirement home. He was 85.

The longtime Catonsville resident led the department under Mayor William Donald Schaefer from 1981 to 1984.

One of the commissioner's lasting achievements was establishing an endowment for police officers in need.

That fund -- the Frank Battaglia Signal 13 Foundation -- assists officers, their sick children or their children's education.

Its name comes from the police radio term "Signal 13," which is broadcast when an officer is in trouble.

The endowment is valued at $1 million.

"He didn't bring in the storm troopers," said Mr. Schaefer, who picked Mr. Battaglia to succeed Donald C. Pomerleau, a strident commissioner known as a difficult and zealous reformer.

Mr. Battaglia "kept order in Baltimore," said Mr. Schaefer, now Maryland's comptroller.

"He was never loud. All he wanted to be was a good policeman."

Mr. Battaglia's nickname of "Batman" was at odds with his quiet demeanor and nonconfrontational style. He didn't have any exotic tricks, but he was known for darting around the darkened city to make unexpected visits.

"I guess I got [the nickname] when I was night commander visiting police districts and trouble spots," Mr. Battaglia once said. "People would say, `Here comes the Batman.' "

Mr. Battaglia was 68 years old when he was named commissioner by Mr. Schaefer on Sept. 1, 1981.

Known for niceness

That year, a local newspaper wrote: "He is widely known inside and outside the department for a mild manner, compassion, coolness under fire, integrity, fairness, reasoned deliberations and general niceness."

Born in Baltimore, Mr. Battaglia grew up on Camden Street in Southwest Baltimore, the son of a barber. His mother's family had a neighborhood grocery store.

He attended public schools and the Maryland Institute, College of Art, working as an outdoor sign painter before getting his badge in February 1940. His first night on the street, police got a tip of a break-in at the Crescent Candy Co. downtown.

" `You take the back. I'll take the front,' " Mr. Battaglia recalled his partner saying. "I didn't know how to shoot my gun. Luckily, I didn't have to shoot the poor fellow."

During World War II, Mr. Battaglia spent nearly four years in Naval Intelligence in Washington, rejoining the force in 1945. While with the Navy, he married the former Ruth Wales, who died in 1996.

Up through the ranks

Named a police lieutenant in 1954, Mr. Battaglia was promoted to captain in 1957 and became commander of the Southwestern District.

He was named the Sunpapers' first policeman of the year in 1960 and two years later was promoted to inspector. He made chief of patrol in 1966.

While commander of the Southwestern in 1958, Mr. Battaglia devised a controversial policy to cut auto theft, instructing his officers to stop drivers and search their vehicles for guns, suspicious tools and any illegal items -- without benefit of a warrant.

Although respected as a crime-fighting tool, the practice was ruled unconstitutional in 1978.

"When people look back and reflect on his tenure, they'll remember the Battaglia Plan," said Maj. Kenneth Blackwell, commander of the city's Western District. "For its time, it was innovative and served the agency well."

Bishop L. Robinson, the city's first black police commissioner, succeeded Mr. Battaglia in 1984. It was Mr. Battaglia, he said, who in 1974 recommended him to Mr. Pomerleau as the city's first African-American chief of patrol.

"Not only did I work for the man, but he was a dear friend," said Mr. Robinson, who went on to become state secretary of Public Safety and Correctional Services. "I knew Frank Battaglia my entire police career. Everybody knew that behind that soft voice was a very strong-willed individual."

Officer Gary McLhinney, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said: "He was really known as caring for the rank and file."

A member of the Sons of Italy, he helped bring that group's national convention to Baltimore in 1979. He was also a member of the Italian-American Charities.

A requiem Mass will be offered at 10 a.m. Thursday at St. William of York Church, Cooks Lane and Edmondson Avenue.

He is survived by his daughter, Karen S. Schuster of Columbia, and three grandchildren.

Staff writers Peter Hermann and Frederick N. Rasmussen contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 5/04/99

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