Deputy chief is always on duty

Workday: City's No. 2 police officer spends his days running much of the department and his nights on the streets.

June 19, 2001|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Bert F. Shirey looked across his office at the red vinyl couch against the wall and sighed. It's where he sleeps most nights.

There's simply too much work to do, said Shirey, Baltimore's deputy police commissioner.

"It's not just nuttiness," Shirey said about sleeping in his office. "If you're going to do it right, you have to throw yourself into it."

Shirey has always been a hard worker, staying late and starting early. But when Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris revamped his command staff last month, removing Deputy Commissioner Barry W. Powell and others, Shirey stepped into the breach.

Already in charge of the department's administrative arm - handling budgets and training, putting gas in police cars - Shirey took over much of the day-to-day operation of the department. He also helps run crime-trend meetings and conceive of and carry out crime-fighting strategies.

Most nights, after long days at the office, Shirey drives from district to district, getting a feel for the streets and making sure commanders are doing their jobs.

Norris said he would be lost without him, calling Shirey's historical knowledge - he joined the force 35 years ago - and work ethic "critical" to his success.

But the hours have taken their toll. Some commanders worry that Shirey has taken on too much and is not allowing others to shoulder responsibility. Norris said he has even asked Shirey to slow down a little bit.

"I asked him to take a bit of a break," Norris said. "I don't want him to get sick on me. I can't afford for anything to happen to him."

Although Shirey has always been a workaholic, some commanders speculate he might have buried himself in his job even more after his 24-year-old daughter died suddenly of a heart problem in 1997.

Shirey acknowledged that might be true. But he also said that working hard is something that comes naturally - he tried to retire briefly last year but couldn't handle it. "I felt depressed and worthless," he said.

Shirey joined the force in 1966 after dropping out of high school, something that made him "self-conscious." He eventually earned a GED and a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from the University of Baltimore and continued to climb the department's ranks, spending five years as Northeast District commander in the 1990s.

He has worked for eight police commissioners and was acting police commissioner for a brief time when Mayor Martin O'Malley took office in 1999.

At 56, Shirey seems older than his years - police work has a tendency to do that. He has gray hair and a weathered face and hazel eyes. He walks with slightly stooped shoulders.

He has earned the affection of many officers, who know him as "Uncle Bert" and the "Energizer Bunny." He has more energy than most young officers, his staff said, and leads by example.

"He's probably the most dedicated person in this police department," said Gary McLhinney, president of Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 3. "He's really stepped up in this transition."

On a typical day recently, Shirey awoke about 5:30 a.m. at the office and took a walk, read the newspaper and began going over crime statistics for the weekly crime-trend meeting at headquarters. He also pored over papers about violence in East Baltimore, especially the shooting of 12 people at a block party on Memorial Day, trying to make sense of it.

"I take that personally," Shirey said as he flipped through intelligence files on gang members and possible reasons for the violence.

At 8:30, he ran a brief meeting with Maj. Robert M. Stanton, who heads the department's criminal investigation division, and Maj. Kenneth Blackwell, who runs the department's patrol division. Shirey wanted to make sure everyone was going to ask the right questions at Comstat, a program in which police commanders meet with Norris and question subordinates about investigations.

At 9, he took his chair next to Norris at Comstat and began grilling the Southeastern District commander about a rising number of car thefts in Canton.

For the next three hours, he quizzed other commanders about similar problems and helped them and Norris come up with a strategy to prevent violence in East Baltimore and think of possible connections between gang members and the mass shooting.

At noon, he began a series of administrative meetings that lasted most of the day and testified in a civil case in Baltimore Circuit Court involving a police helicopter accident several years ago. At 7:30, he went for a drive around the city.

He raced to a shooting in West Baltimore, spoke to a few officers, then raced to another shooting in Northeast Baltimore.

He then drove to Southeast Baltimore, where he wanted to go on foot patrol in a "bubble area," in which crime from the Eastern District might spill into an otherwise stable neighborhood.

When Shirey joined the department, he worked a foot post at North and Greenmount avenues. "I learned everything I need to know about policing on my foot post," Shirey said.

Shirey and Sgt. Derrick Lee, his aide and driver, entered a bar, the Crow's Nest, and looked around. "You need to look people in the eye and let them know there's a cop on the beat," Shirey said.

Outside, several young girls were hanging out. They began to pepper Shirey and other officers with questions about police work.

"How long have you been on the team?" one girl asked Shirey. "One hundred years?"

Shirey laughed.

"Sooner or later, I going to call an end to this stuff," Shirey said later. "One day, I'll do that. My wife is a ship's captain's wife. I have promises to keep, and I'm going to keep them. But this isn't a job for everyone. Some people are just suited to it."

At 11:30 p.m., he returned to his office, took out a pillow, threw a blanket on the couch, set his alarm and went to sleep.

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