From policing to politics

After 8 1/2 years as a by-the-book chief, Livesay is retiring to make a run for the County Council

May 28, 2006|By MELISSA HARRIS | MELISSA HARRIS,SUN REPORTER

On a spring afternoon in 1991, then-Lt. Wayne Livesay was in the middle of a four-hour standoff with a man holding three hostages when a police sniper announced that he had a clear shot. The hostage-taker's attorney later told The Sun that Livesay "stepped in immediately and said, `No! You do not have permission to do that.'"

During his 8 1/2 years as chief of the Howard County Police Department, Livesay, 54, has built a reputation for conservative judgment and by-the-book policing. At a police academy graduation last year, he focused his speech on integrity, warning recruits that the public is always watching and that he would fire any officer who lied.

When asked last week if he remembers the stand-off 15 years ago, Livesay said he did. He coolly recited the facts of the event and then concluded with one sentence that illustrates his character: An explanation of the rules.

"Just so you know, the rules of engagement are that unless an officer is confronted with deadly force, he must have permission to use it," he said.

Livesay's tenure, which ends Wednesday when he retires to run for the County Council, has been marked by outreach to minority groups and by advances in technology.

Though his police record is virtually unblemished, he has struggled with day-to-day relationships with some rank-and-file officers, who have characterized him as unforgiving, and with members of the press, who have expressed concerns that he unfairly limits their access.

His critics -- and even some of his supporters, including Pfc. Dan Besseck -- call him stubborn.

"There is no question that he has moved the department forward," said Besseck, who is secretary of the police union. "Some people are happy. Some aren't because he can be stubborn."

Livesay is disciplined in his personal and professional life, going to bed after the 10 p.m. news, arriving at the office by 5 a.m. and abstaining from alcohol.

He grew up poor in Sykesville. His family lacked indoor plumbing until the 1960s. He was laid off from his first job after graduating from Glenelg High School in 1969 -- stamping metal sheets for Westinghouse. He held odd jobs after that, was called back to Westinghouse briefly and then left after rumors of more layoffs. With two young children and a wife to support, he turned to policing for job security.

His wife, Brenda Livesay, said that he has always worked hard, always had his eye on the next promotion. He earned three degrees, including a master's in applied behavioral science from the Johns Hopkins University, while working full time and raising a family.

Brenda Livesay said that she was surprised he did not run for county executive.

When his name was floated to lead Baltimore's Police Department in 1999, Livesay told The Sun that he would like to lead a larger department.

Although no one has difficulty praising his work ethic or drive, people who are close to him struggle to recall humorous anecdotes about him. Brenda, his high school sweetheart and wife of almost 37 years, acknowledges that her husband is not a jokester.

"He's very serious," she said. "I can't think of a funny story off-hand."

But that doesn't mean he's not warm, she and others said. An avid gardener, he frequently brings his assistant hand-cut roses and other flowers from his gardens, one of which he maintains for his mother. He also gives colleagues vegetables from his garden -- his tomatoes are among the most prized.

Leaders in the county's minority community lavish praise on him for similar gestures.

After a recent news report raised questions about racial profiling among Howard County officers, including critical comments from the head of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Livesay asked the group's president for a meeting. In 1999, Livesay was among the first chiefs in the state to start a new data-gathering program to root out officers engaging in racial profiling

When the head of a local gay rights group wrote a critical letter to the editor, Livesay called her and asked to speak at one of the group's meetings. And after Sept. 11, 2001, Livesay contacted leaders of the county's Muslim community, offering them protection from retribution.

Some have said the gestures were calculated efforts to bolster his public image -- always with an eye on political office -- but Livesay said of the outreach efforts, "That's just who I am."

He instituted a policy ensuring that the department's retired guns would be destroyed rather than resold and possibly wind up in the hands of a criminal. Livesay's support for handgun control has prompted criticism from fellow Republicans, who favor fewer restrictions.

Livesay almost always holds community meetings after serious crimes and calls victims' families.

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