An arresting era draws to a close

Station: Baltimore County police lose the Towson precinct house today but keep a host of memories.

January 29, 2001|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore County Police Department is moving out of the Towson precinct station today, leaving behind a historic building that has become a cluttered, crime-fighting anachronism.

The Spanish colonial-style brick structure has been home to seven decades of officers and police commanders, who say it often resembled the station in the 1970s television comedy "Barney Miller."

Like Precinct 12 in the sitcom, the Towson station house was filthy, and served as a gathering place for a cast of eccentric characters, from gritty detectives to bizarre civilians.

"This is the place where you come back and [all of a sudden] remember all kinds of memories," said retired Officer Ernest Eugene Smith, 74, who was stationed there in the 1950s.

"Every Christmas it seemed like in that alley [behind the precinct] there would be a barrel of oysters," he recalled with bewilderment, as if he had only now begun wondering who left it.

After 73 years at 308 Washington Ave., the precinct station is relocating to a $5.1 million structure at Bosley and Susquehanna avenues. The new building will be open for business tomorrow.

The new two-story, 17,500-square-foot station house will be about twice the size of the Washington Avenue building. It will include seven holding cells, a bail hearing room with video cameras and an exercise room for officers.

While grateful that their pleas for a modern facility have been fulfilled, dozens of current and retired officers gathered at Washington Avenue station earlier this month to swap stories and gawk at artifacts that were found during moving preparations:

They were amazed that a rusty can that Detective Sgt. Joseph "Al" Burger used for chewing tobacco in the 1960s still sits on the front desk.

They laughed at a 1942 employment application that asked: "Do you have bunions on [your] feet?"

They told tales of officers bringing shotguns from home after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, thinking they would need the added firepower to protect Towson from the riots that had engulfed Baltimore.

They talked of the odder moments of police work, such as when a desk officer ended a vehicle pursuit in the early 1980s by running onto Washington Avenue and barricading the street with chairs.

They shared memories of a colorful parade of people walking into the station -- from naked women and men dressed as Santa Claus to criminals who confessed to crimes ranging from jaywalking to murder.

And they questioned what happened to "Agent 1096" (1096 is the police code for a person with mental problems), who would report to the precinct each day during the 1970s for instructions on where to watch traffic.

"It feels like the last show of `Seinfeld,'" Sgt. Wayne Howard said after four dozen current and retired officers posed for a group picture in front of the station recently.

Lt. Tim Caslin, who has spent about a third of his 30-year career in the Towson precinct, said, "The building itself means a lot, but it also means a lot because of the friendships ... that is your life."

The precinct house, which used to be called Towson Station, was built for $3,900 in 1927.

At the time, the building was the headquarters for the county's 46 officers. The county has almost 1,700 officers today. It also contained a cell block and a courtroom, according to the book "Baltimore County Police, 1874-1999," prepared by Maj. Michael J. McCleese and Cpl. Jay R. Lerch Jr., with contributions from many officers.

In 1940, when Oscar Grimes became chief of police, the county commissioners paid $869 to add a second floor to the Towson station, according to the book.

During World War II, sandbags were stacked two stories high around the station to protect it from enemy attack.

On New Year's Day 1947, a fire engulfed the cellblock, killing two men who had been charged with alcohol-related offenses.

Between 1940 and 1961 the county's population more than tripled and county officials moved police headquarters out of the Washington Avenue building.

But precinct operations remained there, crammed into a space about twice the size of the average Baltimore rowhouse.

"We should have been out of there a long time ago," said Cornelius J. Behan, who served as police chief from 1977 to 1993. "But there was tradition, and folks would not hear of it."

Over the years, conditions at the precinct deteriorated. Lead paint flaked from the walls, ceilings leaked and the heating system created saunalike conditions. Cockroaches established residence in the holding cell area.

Howard remembers inmates during the 1980s calling out in the middle of the night that "things were crawling on them." When officers turned the lights on, Howard said, hundreds of cockroaches would be climbing on the walls.

"We used to tell [prisoners] to call the [American Civil Liberties Union] because there was nothing we could do about the conditions," said Howard, who began working at Towson in 1975.

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