Officer replaces Toohey as Balto. Co. police spokesman

Successor to civilian is a longtime veteran of department

(Baltimore Sun photo by Kim…)
November 19, 2009|By Nick Madigan and Peter Hermann | Baltimore Sun reporters

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

Toohey, a 64-year-old civilian 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.

Toohey's successor will be Lt. Robert McCullough, a 43-year-old community-outreach team commander who has been with the Baltimore County police force since he joined as a cadet when he was 18.

Employees of the county government who declined to be named said the decision to let Toohey go took him by surprise. In a telephone interview, he did not disagree with that characterization.

"There comes a time for people to move on and new people to move in," Toohey said. "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."

Toohey, who asked that reports of his departure not be made to sound "like an obituary," said the schedule for his successor's installation was uncertain, but that he would not be leaving until that happens.

"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 dismissal in its online news releases Wednesday. Johnson did not respond to several requests for comment.

Toohey's was one of the most recognizable voices to county residents accustomed to hearing him on television and radio recount the details of crimes and other incidents. He was probably the most quoted official in Baltimore County, his observations a daily staple of articles in this newspaper and elsewhere.

In a Baltimore Sun interview in October 2006, Toohey recalled a particularly memorable episode in his long career as the county's police spokesman, when officers were called upon to put an end to an extended 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."

Toohey, who joined the department in March 1996, said a spokesman in the spotlight must remember his ultimate audience, particularly in a case as closely watched as the Palczynski episode. "When I was talking, I was not talking to the media. I was talking to the public. You can't express frustration with the reporters. People are watching, and they want to know what's going on."

Toohey knows 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, Mills grabbed a heavy dining-room chair and, Toohey said, "he looked like he was going to throw it at them." At that point, he went on, the officers had no choice but to fire at Mills, wounding him.

Police departments in the Baltimore metropolitan area differ in their use of so-called public information officers. For some, a sworn spokesperson can more easily navigate police bureaucracies notorious for keeping information close to the vest, while others see outsiders as more able to bring fresh perspectives on police work and navigate the media world.

When Sheriff Jesse Bane took over the Harford County Sheriff's Department three years ago, he let the civilian spokesman go. He said he wanted a uniformed presence and has kept that spot filled with a staff officer.

In Baltimore, the Police Department has had civilians in charge of its public information unit for decades, but a staff of officers was tasked with actually talking to the news media. Two such officers had to resign from the force when commissioners promoted them to the top civilian post of chief spokesman.

One of them, Robert W. Weinhold, who became chief spokesman in the mid-1990s, was complimentary Wednesday about 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," he said.

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

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