Baltimore County Police Dismiss Chief Spokesman

Officer Will Replace Toohey, Who Held The Job Since 1996

November 19, 2009|By Nick Madigan and Peter Hermann | Nick Madigan and Peter Hermann,nick.madigan@baltsun.com and Peter.Hermann@baltsun.com

Bill Toohey, the public face of the Baltimore County Police Department since 1996, has been dismissed and will be replaced by a uniformed officer.

The 64-year-old chief departmental spokesman and former radio reporter was informed of the decision Tuesday by Police Chief James W. Johnson, who expressed a preference for the department's front man to be a sworn member of the force instead of a civilian.

Toohey was philosophical when reached Wednesday afternoon: "There comes a time for people to move on and new people to move in. That is what is happening here. I have great respect for the men and women of this agency. If I can help with the transition, I certainly will."

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Wednesday's early editions provided an incorrect account of the departure in 2000 of former Baltimore police spokesman Robert W. Weinhold Jr. He resigned his post to become chief of staff of the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Community-Oriented Policing Services. The Sun regrets the errors.

Toohey said that the schedule for the installation of a successor - not yet named - was uncertain, and that he would not be leaving until that happens. Johnson did not respond to a request for comment. "My understanding is that Bill is going to retire after a period of months," said Donald I. Mohler III, a spokesman for the county government, which made no mention of Toohey's firing in its online news releases.

County residents were accustomed to hearing Toohey recount details of some of the region's most notable crimes and other incidents.

In a 2006 Baltimore Sun interview, Toohey recalled how officers sought to end a crime spree by Joseph C. Palczynski in March 2000. After a 10-day manhunt, SWAT team members shot Palczynski to death in the living room of a Dundalk rowhouse, where he had been holding three hostages.

"During that whole time, everyone was a nervous wreck, and it was up to the police to try to maintain some sense of stability and control," said Toohey, whose face Palczynski had been watching on television in the rowhouse. "People had to look at us and say, 'They're working on it. They're in control, and eventually it will be OK.' We had to convey a sense of confidence."

The region's police departments differ in the use of civilians or sworn officers as chief spokesmen. In Baltimore City, the Police Department has had civilians in charge of its public information unit for decades, but officers had the task of talking directly to reporters. Two of those officers resigned from the force when commissioners promoted them to the top civilian post of chief spokesman.

One of those officers, Robert W. Weinhold, who became chief spokesman in the mid-1990s, complimented Toohey's work: "I've known Bill to be a very professional and articulate speaker who had the ability to take a very complex law enforcement matter and deliver it to the public in an understandable manner."

That's a crucial talent because, Weinhold said, "The most important message is the message received."

Toohey did not hesitate to remind reporters that he had once been one of them. In the 1970s, he worked for NBC as a writer and producer, and was National Public Radio's first correspondent in New York.

"I'm hoping one day that will make me an answer in Trivial Pursuit," he wrote on his Facebook page. Toohey also had been press secretary for U.S. Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes.

As a police spokesman, Toohey knew how to give reporters the kind of details that turn a list of facts into a tale. In May, he gave The Sun a lucid description of a violent face-off between two Baltimore County police officers and a 27-year-old Lochearn man, Odatei Mills.

"He was making incoherent and irrational statements, and talking about aliens," Toohey said. Mills "picked up a glass patio table and threw it at the officers" and when they used pepper spray, it "didn't work."

Finally, before the officers fired at Mills, wounding him, he grabbed a heavy dining-room chair and, Toohey said, "he looked like he was going to throw it at them."

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