Palczynski standoff may haunt Ruppersberger

Days-long hostage siege could mar public's views of police, future candidacy

March 20, 2000|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

A former prosecutor with a no-nonsense crime-fighting philosophy, Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger quickly pressed his imprint onto the police department after his 1994 election.

Gone was former chief Michael D. Gambrill and his community policing practices. In came Chief Terrence B. Sheridan, a longtime Ruppersberger friend who shared the executive's commitment to rigid enforcement and fast response times. Crime rates plunged, and a year ago, officers were rewarded with a 9 percent salary increase.

But as accused killer Joseph C. Palczynski continues to hold a community hostage, the county police department is facing scrutiny when the stakes for Ruppersberger and others in charge of public safety are reaching a peak.

Prevented from seeking a third term as executive, Ruppersberger is weighing a run for governor in 2002. If he enters the race, his performance as an administrator -- particularly in law enforcement -- will be closely examined.

"The only claim to fame he would have was having run a county," said Louis L. DePazzo, the former county councilman from Dundalk. "Blaming the captain for everything aboard the ship is pretty stringent, but that's the way it is."

After the past two days, many residents in Dundalk and throughout the area believe there is plenty of blame to go around.

Neighbors are puzzled at how Palczynski could get inside the home of his estranged girlfriend's parents after eluding police for 10 days.

"It's my opinion the house should have been under 24-hour surveillance," said County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat and generally a supporter of the county executive. Asked if police appear to have made a mistake, Gardina, a former county police officer, said, "I think so."

If true, it is a mistake that could haunt the county executive.

"It's not a source of happiness for me to see it, but things could be looking better than they are now," said DePazzo.

The weekend events continue a painful six-week stretch for county police.

On Feb. 7, Sgt. Bruce A. Prothero was killed while working an off-duty assignment at a Pikesville store. Two suspects were caught quickly, but two others remained at large for almost two weeks.

On March 7, Palczynski, reportedly distraught over an ex-girlfriend, is accused of beginning a rampage that has left four people dead and, as of last night, included three people held hostage in a Dundalk rowhouse.

Throughout both crises, Ruppersberger has had nothing but praise for Sheridan and the rest of the department.

"You are judged on how you handle the bad times, not how you've handled the good times," Ruppersberger said yesterday. "I stand behind them 100 percent."

Media accounts that raise questions about police tactics are unfair, Ruppersberger said, because officials can't, in the midst of a crisis, share sensitive information that could recast public perception. Ruppersberger said potential political fallout takes a back seat to protecting the lives of those held hostage.

"I will handle the situation. I will take responsibility," Ruppersberger said. "There will be plenty of time for analysis later."

Such analysis might place Ruppersberger in an unusual situation for a suburban elected official. While it's common for the prospects of big-city mayors in New York, Los Angeles and even Baltimore to rise and fall with each police crisis, the worries of suburban politicians more frequently are tied to issues such as transportation and development.

"I think he is probably very supportive of the efforts of the police department," Gardina said. "But he has to have this same kind of concern about oversight as I have. I think he does, but I don't think he is going to be critical until this thing is resolved."

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