O'Malley proves up to sad reality of his office

This Just In...

April 28, 2000|By DAN RODRICKS

TWICE ALREADY, Martin O'Malley has seen and heard the hardest things a big-city mayor ever sees: the Shock Trauma doctor, the same one both times, stepping forward to give the bad news; emotionally shattered and angry relatives of police officers in a hospital ward; officers weeping in hallways and anguished officers at roll call; long rows of mourners, small children roaming among them, in funeral homes and churches. He's spoken eloquently at two funerals now. Two city officers have died on O'Malley's watch, and he has not been mayor six months.

"Nothing ever prepares you for this," he said the other day.

If it's possible to declare a time when the burden of a mayor's responsibility shifts firmly from concept to reality, it's when a police officer dies on duty. And it's doubly true for a mayor who has invested most of his words and energy into accelerating the fight against crime in a city infested with it.

More policing, more danger. It follows.

Kevon Gavin was 27. He had returned to Baltimore because he wasn't content with the tamer suburbs. He wanted to work where he could be the most help, and Baltimore needed all the help it could get. It got Gavin for six years.

O'Malley went to roll call at the Southwestern District on Good Friday, the day Gavin died.

"I wasn't expecting to speak, I just wanted to be there with Eddie," he said, referring to Baltimore's acting police commissioner, Edward T. Norris. "Eddie got there ahead of me, and he spoke to the officers, saying things like, `Support each other,' `Stay strong, and be there for each other and for [Gavin's] family.' `We're doing something we've been called to do,' `Stay focused.' And then he turned to me."

O'Malley, a former prosecutor, has spoken to police officers many times, at the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge and elsewhere. He admires and respects them. He's very popular among them. He's at ease speaking to them. In March, he attended roll call in the Western District after Officer Jamie Roussey died. At the Southwestern the other day, he saw the comrades of Kevon Gavin, young faces and middle-aged faces, officers in tears, on the verge of tears and holding back tears.

"They do an incredibly tough job every day, you know?" O'Malley said. "They put in long hours, and sometimes it gets demoralizing. I told them, `Sometimes it feels like the people with the bullhorns [protesting police practices] are the only ones you hear.' But I wanted them to know the whole city was grieving with them."

And O'Malley, as he does so frequently, reaffirmed his support for the police.

"He really cares about the officers, and I'm not just saying that because I work for the man," says Detective Vincent Roussey, uncle of Jamie Roussey and a member of the mayor's security detail. "He's genuine and sincere. He went to the viewings and stayed and stayed, and that means a lot."

When Jamie Roussey died, O'Malley visited the young officer's family several times and for long periods. Jamie Roussey had been living with his parents in Catonsville. His father, brother and cousin, as well as his uncle, are career police officers in Baltimore. "He went to my brother Fred's house on a Saturday, and I hadn't expected to see him there," said Vincent Roussey. "He sat for a long time with my young nephews, who'd just lost a brother. It reminded me of the old way."

The old way?

"The way it used to be on the police force," Roussey said. "You take care of your own, like it's a big family."

With a mayor who supports the cops, and who says so clearly and repeatedly.

"We've lost two young, excellent police officers," Roussey said. "They gave their lives for the city when they could've gone to computer school and earned $80,000 a year. You know what the No. 1 answer to the question they ask during the interview is? They ask, `Why do you want to be a police officer?' And the No. 1 answer is, `I want to help people, I want to make a difference.'"

Roussey and Gavin.

And, in February, a Baltimore County sergeant, Bruce Prothero. O'Malley attended that funeral, too.

"Do you ever notice that the ones who die always seem like the young and idealistic ones, the ones who really get involved and care?" O'Malley said. "Maybe that's because that's the majority of the police force.

"I tell you, it's frustrating when you see how this police department was dismantled over the last several years. I get angry that we let the city slip so far. And it's not because these guys were not willing to go out there and take a bullet but because we weren't giving them the support they deserved."

Those days are over, O'Malley said, without mentioning the resounding support his anti-crime message received from voters last fall, across racial lines.

The other day, at Gavin's wake, an elderly woman and her middle-age son approached O'Malley. He remembered their last name as Grogan. They wanted him to know why they'd made a point to pay their respects at the funeral home.

There had been problems with vandals at the elder Grogan's home. Gavin was the Southwestern District police officer who responded. He took a report. He came back three days later to check up on the woman. The Grogans were impressed, and grateful. "We just had to come by," the son told the mayor.

"They went out of their way to be there," O'Malley said afterward, reflecting on the moment and using it to make a point that he's made many times about life in Baltimore. "These were white people paying their respects for a black officer. There's no black crime, there's no white crime "

Just crime.

Just cops willing to die fighting it.

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