Tolliver, Arundel's top cop, leads with low-key approach

Morale within department has already improved, officers say

October 21, 2012|By Andrea F. Siegel, The Baltimore Sun

When an Anne Arundel County councilman vowed recently to subpoena the county's new police chief to discuss an investigation within the department, Larry W. Tolliver said the legal demand wasn't necessary. Just call me, the chief said.

That low-key approach represents a marked shift from Tolliver's beleaguered predecessor, who appeared before the council after he was subpoenaed and its chairman said its members would consider seeking his arrest if he didn't respond; he came with his attorney and revealed little, citing a continuing grand jury investigation.

Those who know Tolliver say the 67-year-old's disarming approach may be just what the department needs to rebuild morale and public trust. But others wonder whether the new chief can surmount the tumult in the agency after being hired by County Executive John R. Leopold, who is awaiting a criminal trial over alleged misuse of his police detail.

The previous chief, James Teare Sr., retired, which ended a related investigation by the state prosecutor's office. And a recent internal investigation, under Tolliver, into whether a police captain lied in a civil suit against Leopold reached no conclusion.

That captain, Eric Hodge, is now a target of a probe by the state prosecutor as well, and had his police powers suspended last week. Tolliver said that investigation is unrelated to the internal inquiry.

"He is taking over at the most difficult time in the Police Department's history," said Councilman Jamie Benoit, the Crownsville Democrat who threatened to subpoena Tolliver over the recent internal probe. Benoit said he is still considering whether to call Tolliver before the council, though Tolliver has said he can't reveal personnel or investigation details.

State Sen. James E. DeGrange, an Anne Arundel Democrat who has known Tolliver for two decades, called his new job "a near-impossible task."

The new chief is known for his people skills. Supporters say Tolliver, who has held several politically appointed jobs, is loyal — he took time off in 1977 from his work as a bodyguard to then-Gov. Marvin Mandel to help him move from the governor's mansion after Mandel was convicted of federal crimes. They say he relies on trust — he has moved into key roles a few officers he knew well from his stint as county police chief in the late 1990s. And he aims to get along with others to see a task done.

Tolliver says his role is to raise the low morale of officers and refocus on the department's law enforcement duties.

At a recent roll call, he told officers, a bit of the drawl of his native Kentucky evident in his speech: "We used to have fun. Let's have fun again."

Still, some wonder whether Tolliver can steer clear of controversy because he reports to the same boss and hears from the same advisers that Teare did.

While Leopold's criminal and civil cases continue, questions about the agency can fester, said Dan Nataf, who heads the Center for the Study of Local Issues at Anne Arundel Community College.

"He is appointed by the person who is accused. It creates an intrinsic conflict of interest," Nataf said.

Tolliver says none of the officials he worked for ever asked him to do anything illegal — and he wouldn't have anyway. And he said he wants to stay away from Leopold's legal problems, securing a promise that the county executive wouldn't be a "quasi-chief" and meddle in departmental affairs.

He said of his decision to emerge from a comfortable retirement at his home along the Wye River, "I really love police work. To say that ego didn't place it into it, I'd be lying. To think they called an old warhorse back."

A John Wayne fan, Tolliver is known for relying on common sense and fostering bonds with officers. He calls even some of the graying ones "son," seeks their opinions and accompanies them on the job.

While some officers said they'd never met Teare, Tolliver worked a late-night drunken-driving checkpoint with them, rides along with an officer at least every other week, and told the rest of the brass to do the same so they don't lose perspective. That sits well with officers.

"He's going to take the 'dys' out of dysfunctional," predicted Jerome Klasmeier, who has known Tolliver for decades. "He leads from the front. He doesn't ask his officers to do anything he wouldn't do himself."

Klasmeier, the county's former central services chief, recalls that Tolliver, in his first stint as police chief, took a methodical approach to officers' complaints that their guns were jamming. Both he and Tolliver fired along with officers at a range to assess the problem firsthand, and the department bought new weapons from a different manufacturer. Officers still talk about that.

"He listens to what people are saying, and he is not afraid to make command decisions," said O'Brien Atkinson, president of the county's largest police union.

Said Tolliver, "You have to be involved with people and work with everyone. You have to know what's going on in the trenches."

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