Leader of police `family' departs

State chief's initiatives for department lauded

`Good ... for law enforcement'

January 13, 2003|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

During his eight years as superintendent of the Maryland State Police, Col. David B. Mitchell made a point of calling the 1,600-officer force the "state police family."

He also became a father figure of sorts, calling officers "my troopers" even when they were under public scrutiny.

Mitchell regularly visited injured officers in the hospital. And in addition to pictures of his three children, Mitchell kept pictures of the families of officers killed in the line of duty on his desk at state police headquarters in Pikesville.

Not that he will be remembered as a soft touch when he steps down as chief of the agency this week. Mitchell stood firm - and tailored the department's policies - in an effort to rid the force of sexual harassment and to dispel perceptions that troopers stop motorists based on race.

A man who made "No surprises" one of his mottoes, Mitchell was prepared for the likelihood that Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. would bring in his own superintendent. Mitchell is a longtime friend of Gov. Parris N. Glendening, and his support for the governor and his lieutenant governor, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend - the Democratic candidate for governor in November - were perceived as his greatest flaw by many in the rank and file, who voted overwhelmingly to endorse Ehrlich.

Mitchell, 52, who oversees an agency with a $290 million budget, will turn over his command to former Baltimore City Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris when Ehrlich is sworn in Wednesday.

Although some politicians and police officers have questioned why Norris - whose experience is in urban crime-fighting - would want the post, there was similar head-scratching when Mitchell was named state police superintendent in 1995.

Mitchell began his career as a Prince George's County police officer at age 20 and worked his way up the ranks until 1990, when Glendening, then the Prince George's County executive, picked him for the chief's job.

Although that department's public image remains tainted from charges of police brutality, Mitchell's handling of the department's troubled reputation pleased Glendening.

"When he came to the state police in 1995, he had a very good reputation for working to restore a police department's credibility," said state police Lt. Col. Stephen T. Moyer, chief of the field operations bureau, who calls Mitchell a friend and mentor. "He's done a lot to develop this agency as a professional organization."

Under Mitchell, the state police have established a partnership with Frederick Community College that gives troopers who graduate from the state police academy credits toward an associate's degree from the college.

Mitchell earned his associate's degree while juggling patrol shifts and later earned his bachelor's, master's and a law degree while working as a police commander. He also taught criminal justice at the University of Maryland and remains an adjunct faculty member at the Johns Hopkins University.

Mitchell's priorities also included improving salaries for troopers and revamping the process for investigating and disciplining officers.

"He's been a good person for law enforcement. He's touched many lives," said Crisfield Police Chief Ernest J. Leatherbury, a retired state police commander. "It seemed like he'd been with state police all his life, I think, because in his heart he really loves the department and the officers."

As superintendent, Mitchell inherited his share of controversy, including a Department of Justice investigation into sexual harassment allegations by female troopers, and a pending federal lawsuit accusing state police of racial profiling.

Six months after taking office, Mitchell videotaped a message to his troopers that he would not tolerate sexual harassment, and fired a major accused of kissing female co-workers against their will and exposing himself to a female trooper in his office.

Mitchell was one of the most visible supporters of the state law passed in 2000 that requires police officers statewide to track the race and gender of motorists they stop and to collect that data for analysis by the University of Maryland. The bill was part of Glendening's legislative package that year.

The superintendent also advocated expanding the state's ballistic fingerprinting program to include assault rifles. During the gubernatorial campaign, Townsend, with Mitchell at her side, vowed to adopt the program.

Mitchell said he remains convinced the database that keeps records on the shell casings of handguns sold in Maryland will solve many crimes eventually. "It took us four years to get a hit on the DNA database," Mitchell recalled, referring to a procedure that has become the centerpiece of police forensic work.

Mitchell's seemingly unconditional support for Glendening and Townsend proposals caused some troopers to question his motivation and integrity.

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