First Shift

He's 23, fresh out of the academy, full of ideas about being a cop. Tonight, he'll find out what the job is really like.

Cover Story

November 28, 1999|By Story by Peter Hermann | Story by Peter Hermann,Sun Staff

A voice echoes off the marble walls of the cavernous War Memorial Building. On this hallowed ground, where the heroes of battle are memorialized, a man in uniform is speaking of a high calling, a mission filled with duty, honor and sacred trust. Of a war being fought on the streets of Baltimore.

Bryan Ruth stands at rapt attention in his dark blue uniform, his arms stiff at his side. His face is expressionless as he listens to an officer addressing graduates of the city's police academy. Like his 46 classmates, Ruth is a new soldier headed for the front.

On this cold Nov. 5, and in the days to come, Ruth and his fellow rookies will hear from veteran officers who joined the force a decade before some of these new cops were born. They will hear from the police commissioner that "the quality of life on the streets is still rotten," despite a police force 3,000 strong. And they will hear this warning: "You are going to be under scrutiny every single day."

Their duty, they'll be told, is to restore order in a city addicted to heroin and overtaken by violence. Yet the toughest challenge may be gaining the trust of the citizens they are sworn to protect.

They are hitting the street during turbulent times.

The controversial shooting of a black man by a white officer on the city's east side has sparked a half-dozen investigations. Some witnesses contend the man was "executed," shot in the back of the head after pleading for his life. Police say he was killed by an officer protecting his partner during a struggle for a gun.

Just three days ago, a housing authority police officer shot and killed a teen-age robbery suspect, heightening the tensions created by the earlier shooting.

Many in the police brotherhood feel betrayed by the system and by public opinion: considered heroes when they die in the line of duty, labeled murderers when they use their guns to protect themselves.

After the first killing, angry residents protested by carrying a casket with "Baltimore Police Department" scrawled on the side. Celebrity lawyer Johnnie Cochran flew into town and denounced the cops as thugs. And now drug dealers, emboldened by the turmoil, lift their shirts to show off guns tucked in waistbands. Some officers say they ignore the brazen challenges to avoid confrontations that might end in gunfire.

The controversial shooting occurred while these recruits were still in training. But its repercussions will shadow their every move as new officers. At the graduation ceremony, the proud parents of Bryan Ruth have heard about the shooting, but they don't fully comprehend its complexities: that it occurred amid the rhetoric of a mayoral campaign in which a white candidate, now the mayor-elect, called for "zero-tolerance" policing. It is a policy some fear will sanction police brutality, particularly against African-Americans.

Rick and Georgena Ruth can't help but notice that half of their son's graduating class is black. Why would Baltimore police, struggling to make its force reflect the city's majority black population, "pick a white kid from the country?" his father wonders.

Bryan Ruth is a 23-year-old weightlifter from rural Pennsylvania, the son of two university professors. One of just 10 recruits in his class with a four-year college education, he holds a degree in criminal justice.

Yet for all his seriousness, Ruth was drawn to the job by the fast-action, real-life drama of the television show "Cops," which highlights the macho image of the men in blue.

He's a physically imposing man, with a sculpted body and a shaved head that make him appear taller than 6-feet-1. Yet he is a quiet guy who greets questions with long, thoughtful silences before answering. For him, being a police officer means "caring for people." He hopes to help children. He has bought Winnie the Pooh Band-Aids to carry in his patrol car.

At the academy, Ruth learned to quickly load 17 bullets into his 9 mm Glock pistol, to swing his baton to disable a man, to deftly maneuver a boxy Ford Crown Victoria. As part of his training, he also visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington to see how a police force became the tool of a murderous regime.

The young man who grew up in a raised rancher on a cul-de-sac in Shippensburg, Pa., the front door left unlocked during the day, will be paid $28,404 a year to strap on a gun, climb into a patrol car and protect the citizens of Baltimore.

His teachers think he will make it. His classmates voted him the coveted Commissioner's Award for Excellence. When they had to partner up, everyone wanted to be with Ruth, the quiet man with the 18-inch biceps who studies physics and can't wait to solve the city's problems.

"They are so idealistic," says one of Ruth's instructors, Lt. M. Susan Young. "It's almost a shame when reality sets in."

For Bryan Ruth, that will come soon: his first night on the job.

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