Amid police shake-up, city has lost an effective officer

This Just In...

May 18, 2001|By Dan Rodricks

A LITTLE attention must be paid today to John Bergbower, the former Baltimore police major who left city employ recently after 27 years and one silly stolen-car sting, the same silly stolen-car sting that precipitated this week's ugly, racially charged flap at the upper levels of the department.

Bergbower was the unit commander who, during a particularly busy period for both of them, allowed one of his lieutenants to take an unmarked police car home to Carroll County. It was Bergbower's boss, Col. James Hawkins, who secretly took the car from the lieutenant's house, abandoned it in North Baltimore, then reported it in a 911 call that sounded like something out of a minstrel show. (Hey, if you're in town for the Preakness and missed the details, get them at Do a search for "colossal waste of time.")

Bergbower thought this was a vindictive and unprofessional act by Hawkins and filed a complaint against him. The whole thing was an embarrassment to the department, and the police commissioner, Ed Norris, noted it this week as one of the reasons he fired Hawkins and dismissed Deputy Commissioner Barry Powell. (Powell, alleged to have known about Hawkins' silly stolen-car sting, denied involvement in it.)

Of course, Norris has been slapped around for doing this because Hawkins and Powell are black and Norris is white, and by now you've heard all the cheap and unfair blah blah blah. I'd like to hear the big-mouths in this town scream as much about all the homicides as they do about Ed Norris' personnel moves.

Anyway, back to Bergbower.

Here's a guy who ran a unit that last year was credited with actually having an impact on crime. Formerly commander of the Southwestern District, Bergbower had been put in charge of the Regional Warrant Apprehension Task Force, and this multijurisdictional unit received praise for cutting into the city's huge backlog of warrants and for arresting hundreds of violent criminals, including about 120 suspects in killings. This unit's presence in East Baltimore, in particular, contributed to last year's drop in the citywide homicide rate.

But when the mulch hit the fan after the silly stolen-car sting, Bergbower announced his retirement at 49, adding to the brain drain from the Police Department. Though he says he had been looking for a new job -- including the Hagerstown police chief's post -- for at least a year, I'm putting Bergbower's departure down as collateral damage from the recent silliness. Not a good thing for the city.

Norris tried to persuade him to stay but couldn't. Now Bergbower investigates financial fraud for the state in the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. That's where I caught up with him yesterday.

"The Police Department needed an outsider with an outsider's fresh perspective," Bergbower said, "and that's Norris. He has my utmost respect, and I told him that.

"When he came here [from New York City] he invigorated me with his youthful exuberance. He's a take-charge, hands-on guy. When he's not happy about something, he's not afraid to let you know. And when he's happy, he's not afraid to let you know. But -- and this is important -- he's not vindictive. When something goes wrong and he's not happy, his attitude is, `Let's correct it and get back to business.'

"And his business, his goal was to center everyone on the mission, and the mission was -- and is -- to lock up violent offenders.

"He takes chances. He took a chance when he moved a massive amount of manpower out of several districts and into the Eastern where people were dropping like flies. It was a chance, but it was effective -- you're going to see the same thing happen in the Western -- and that's what makes Norris a leader."

A golfing tribute

Last week, at a certain golf course that adjoins a certain cemetery in Baltimore County, a foursome arrived at the seventh tee. One of the men teed up a ball and approached with his driver. Suddenly he turned, faced the opposite direction and chipped the ball high into the cemetery. When a shocked member of the foursome asked what that was all about, he was told this: The man's parents were avid golfers and both are buried in the cemetery, chipping distance from the golf course. Whenever their son comes to the seventh tee, he hits one their way in tribute.

Crab mallets and phones

This week's Hellular Phone story comes from TJI reader Dave Etheridge:

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.