Second whirl for espantoon

Tradition: After seeing proof in Webster's, the police commissioner approves return of the Baltimore nightstick.

September 23, 2000|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Nightstick Joe is back in business.

To the delight of tradition-minded Baltimore police officers, the city's new commissioner agreed yesterday to allow his troops to carry the once-banned espantoon, a wooden nightstick with an ornately tooled handle and a long leather strap for twirling.

Joseph Hlafka, who retired last year after three decades as an officer on the force and is best known by his nickname earned for turning out the sticks on his basement lathe, will once again see his handiwork being used by officers patrolling city streets.

Orders for the $30 sticks are coming in. A local police supply store has ordered three dozen to boost its stock. Commissioner Edward T. Norris bought five. Young officers who have never seen one are calling with questions.

"They want to know how to twirl it," Hlafka said.

Before Norris arrived from New York in January, he had never heard of an "espantoon." He knew the generic "baton," "nightstick" and "billy club," and was well acquainted with New York's technical "PR-24."

He challenged his command staff to prove the term belongs solely to Mobtown. And there, in Webster's Third Edition: "Espantoon, Baltimore, a policeman's club."

Norris signed the order yesterday, and the espantoon once again became a sanctioned, but optional, piece of police equipment.

"When I found out what they meant to the rank and file, I said, `Bring them back,'" said Norris, who is trying to boost morale. "It is a tremendous part of the history of this Police Department."

Hlafka is delighted. When the sticks were barred in 1994 by a commissioner who didn't like them, his production dropped from about 70 a month to 30, with most of them going to officers in departments across the country and collectors.

They are now made from blocks of Bubinga, a hardwood imported from South Africa that doesn't get brittle in cold weather. Hlafka whittles and sands the wood to remove visible blemishes on the sticks, which measure from 22 inches to 25 inches long.

It is art with a purpose. The espantoon recalls the bygone times of Baltimore law enforcement, when running afoul of an officer meant trouble. It fits in with the city's new assertive policing strategy of a new department leader who wants "police to be the police again."

It is just what Hlafka, 62, wants to hear. "No one sold drugs on my post," he said while standing outside his William Street rowhouse, twirling an espantoon he had just finished. "They knew they would have to answer to me."

Former Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier banned espantoons in 1994, saying that they weren't all the same length and weight and that an officer twirling the stick was too intimidating to the citizenry.

In one order, the Californian uprooted decades of Baltimore police history. Espantoons - the word is derived from "spontoon," a weapon carried by members of a Roman legion - were first issued to nightshift officers before the age of radio communication.

Officers used the sticks to bang on sidewalks or drainpipes to call for help. Twirling the stick became an art. "Telling a policeman not to swing his espantoon would be like asking a happy man not to whistle," The Sun said in a 1947 article.

To replace the espantoons, Frazier issued long batons, called Koga sticks, which many officers refused to carry because they were cumbersome. It required hours of training in martial arts self-defense tactics, and some argued that the Koga stick was more dangerous than the espantoon.

Sergeants were reluctant to send officers to Koga classes, and a trainer argued that some of the tactics being taught could be lethal on the street.

Capt. Michael Andrew was among a handful of high-ranking officers who never took Koga training. He still has the espantoon his father gave him when he graduated from the police academy in 1973.

His father, George Andrew, bought the espantoon from a West Baltimore Street shop when he joined the city force in 1940. The nightstick has been used ever since, "with the exception of five years when Frazier banned it, and we had to put it in mothballs," the younger Andrew said.

In the old days, the espantoon was required equipment. "You better not have got caught without that stick under your arm," he said. "If you ever left it in your car, you'd get yelled at by your sergeant."

The Andrews' espantoon started at the Eastern District, where his father began his career at the old stationhouse at East Fayette and North Caroline streets, and then moved with him to a foot patrol on Pennsylvania Avenue, in the Western.

The nightstick is now in the hands of his son, and back on the city's east side. The 49-year-old captain addressed a group of younger officers assigned to flood the crime-troubled Eastern, and held up the espantoon as an invaluable tool for their jobs.

He and other officers say that it can be used to stop threats without resorting to a gun.

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