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

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."

Tolliver sat down with police unions before meeting with the brass after taking office Aug. 1. "I told them, 'I can't offer you money, but I sure could use some advice here,' " he said.

He got an earful.

That Tolliver has made decisions quickly has boosted morale — though he hasn't necessarily agreed with the union, Atkinson said.

In his first weeks on the job, Tolliver gave out more than a dozen more take-home cars and got Leopold to promise that replacing the dilapidated police academy facilities would be a priority. He also began talking to county officials about scrapping a much-despised rule that requires first-responders to submit to alcohol and drug testing if they are involved in even a minor accident in a county vehicle. And he gave commanders of the four police districts more autonomy while streamlining the bureaucracy at headquarters.

"I got my tail chewed off the other day. But it's like your father telling you something," said Tim Altomare, commander of the Northern District. Altomare had his hands in his pockets on one occasion and then his radio shoved into a pocket instead of clipped to his belt.

Among the lingering issues are those in the criminal and civil cases involving Leopold. Prosecutors charge that the county executive used his police protection detail for personal and political gain; Leopold denies any wrongdoing. A civil suit claims that Leopold used the Police Department to get rid of a female employee who complained about his behavior. He rejects that allegation, too.

Tolliver said he's learned a lot from his experiences over the years — including that he didn't like mortuary science, which he'd studied briefly for a possible second job during his early years as a trooper with the Maryland State Police.

"Your mistakes, you learn a lot from them," he said.

He rose — some say largely due to loyalty — to become chief of the executive protection unit under former Gov. William Donald Schaefer, and then superintendent of the Maryland State Police from 1992 to 1995.

But there were controversies during his years as superintendent.

From the botched state police raid on The Block in Baltimore, he learned about the need for hands-on management and tight controls, he said. A review that he ordered revealed that officers spent $98,000 on liquor and "amusements." Some cases had to be dropped, and some officers lost their jobs.

He left the state police amid a highly publicized sexual harassment scandal and lawsuits in which female troopers said complaints went unaddressed. Before he was out — Gov. Parris N. Glendening brought in a new superintendent — Tolliver said all sexual harassment complaints would come to him, and he set up a panel to address the problem.

Later, as Anne Arundel's police chief, he was criticized for letting then-County Executive John G. Gary use police officers in his 1998 re-election campaign materials. Gary lost, and his successor — who had teachers in her campaign material — ousted Tolliver. The county ethics commission faulted Gary, but not Tolliver.

Soon after, he began working for Schaefer in the state comptroller's office, running field enforcement. And when Schaefer retired, so did he.

Derek Fink, Arundel's council chairman and a Pasadena Republican, described Tolliver as "the right man for these times."

"He likes being a policeman. That's his life," said Mike Golden, who knows Tolliver from their time working for Schaefer in the comptroller's office.

If things become intolerable, Tolliver could return to retirement with his wife of 43 years — Sheila Tolliver has been his sweetheart since they attended Annapolis High School — and their fuzzy bichon frise, Luke.

Ultimately, though, Tolliver said he wants to see the department thrive, its "kids" at the top of their game and loving it.

"These young people are going to run the department," he said.

Larry W. Tolliver

Position: Anne Arundel County police chief

Age: 67

Born: Harlan County, Ky.

High school: Annapolis High School, Class of 1964

Current residence: Queen Anne's County

Marital status: Married 43 years to Sheila Tolliver. Two grown children.

Previous work: Maryland State Police, 1967-1995, including commander, executive protection unit for Gov. William Donald Schaefer, and last three years as superintendent; police chief, Anne Arundel County, 1997-1998; director of enforcement, comptroller of Maryland, 1999-2007.

  • Text NEWS to 70701 to get Baltimore Sun local news text alerts
  • Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad