Bishop Lee Robinson Sr., the city's first African-American police commissioner who began his 50-year law enforcement career with the Baltimore Park Police and went on to lead two state agencies, died Monday of Alzheimer's disease and dementia at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Towson. The longtime Homeland resident was 86.
After steadily rising through the ranks of the city Police Department, Mr. Robinson was named commissioner in 1984 by then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer. He went on to become the state's secretary of public safety and correctional services in Mr. Schaefer's administration and was secretary of juvenile justice under Gov. Parris N. Glendening.
"He was the first person when Schaefer became governor he chose to head a state agency. Schaefer had a huge amount of respect for Bishop," said Mary Ann Saar, former secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
"Bishop was running a huge operation — 12,000 employees and a billion-dollar budget. He went in early and came home late," Ms. Saar said. "He knew how to talk to people, and he knew how to get information. That's what made him a good police officer."
"He was one of the few people I asked to stay on — he was so good," said Mr. Glendening. "Bishop Robinson had a presence about him. You knew when he was in a room. It was not arrogance. It was his personal confidence. He was strong and tough but was genteel when you spoke to him personally. My conversations with him were calm and professional."
The son of John Robinson, a laundry worker, and Pearl Robinson, a homemaker, Mr. Robinson was born in Baltimore and raised at the McCulloh Homes on the city's west side.
In a 1997 Baltimore Sun interview, Mr. Robinson recalled a vastly different time growing up at the McCulloh Homes, when residents could enjoy summer evenings sitting in its courtyard and "nobody was running through with a Tec-9."
He credited his father, who could not read or write but had a mind for numbers, with making sure he completed his homework each day.
He was a 1945 graduate of Frederick Douglass Senior High School and served in the Army as a clerk typist before being discharged in 1946.
Mr. Robinson earned a bachelor's degree in 1971 from the University of Baltimore, and two years later, a master's degree in education from what is now Coppin State University. He earned his law degree from the University of Baltimore in 1986.
Mr. Robinson joined the Baltimore Park Police in 1951 and locked up his first prisoner that year when he caught a young man smoking marijuana. As commissioner 33 years later, he marveled at the 12,000 drug arrests his officers were making each year.
At the dawn of his law enforcement career, institutional racism was accepted. Black police officers could not patrol white neighborhoods or be assigned police cars.
"This is a man whose life should be celebrated for tearing down barriers by climbing his way to the top of an organization that historically treated African-Americans with disrespect and derision," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said in a statement. "But Commissioner Robinson's palpable presence made him a force to be reckoned with. The trail he cut for so many that came after him will be one that should never be forgotten."
Leonard Hamm, city police commissioner from 2004 to 2007, said Mr. Robinson was a "giant in this town, a giant in law enforcement."
"He showed us what we needed to do in the Police Department in order to be successful," Mr. Hamm said of minority officers. "He came from the McCulloh projects, I came from the Cherry Hill projects. When he was made [commissioner], I saw that I could do the same thing."
Mr. Robinson joined the city Police Department on Jan. 17, 1952, as a foot patrolman and later worked for its Criminal Investigation Division. After a brief stint with the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1953, he returned to the department in 1954 and was assigned to the Northwestern District. He rejoined criminal investigations later that year.
Mr. Robinson was promoted numerous times and named a lieutenant colonel in 1974. His posts included assignments to the police academy as an instructor; commander of the Eastern District and later the Central Records Division; and area chief of the Patrol Division.
In 1978, Mr. Robinson became a colonel and chief of the Patrol Division, in charge of all nine police districts and the Tactical Division.
Mr. Robinson was named deputy commissioner in 1978 and assigned to the Service Bureau. In 1981, he was assigned to the Operations Bureau, which oversaw the day-to-day operation of the department.
In a 2007 interview with The Baltimore Sun, Mr. Robinson said he "climbed every rank — I didn't miss a step — until Mayor William Donald Schaefer appointed me commissioner in 1984."