When Melissa Hyatt told her fellow police trainees she had always dreamed of being on a SWAT team, some of them scoffed.
They couldn’t see a woman in that role. But four years later, Hyatt joined the Baltimore Police Department’s tactical team and eventually became its first female sergeant, coordinating operations at hostage and barricade scenes.
Now poised to become the first woman to lead the Baltimore County Police Department, the 43-year-old developed a reputation as a focused and determined leader who keeps calm under pressure. In her first interview since County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. nominated her as chief, Hyatt said she’s eager to return to policing after a year in the private sector.
“I’m a police officer by heart,” said Hyatt, who spent the past year as vice president of security for Johns Hopkins University and Medicine. Before that, she had a two-decade career at the Baltimore Police Department.
The opportunity to lead the county department is a “dream job,” said Hyatt, a Reisterstown resident who grew up in the county.
Olszewski, a Democrat, said Hyatt emerged from a pool of about 50 applicants in a national search, calling her community-oriented and innovative. He wants the agency to work toward “more authentic community policing,” improve its diversity and become more transparent.
The County Council is expected to publicly interview her Tuesday, with a confirmation vote set for June 3. She would replace Chief Terrence Sheridan, who is retiring.
Olszewski praised Hyatt’s credentials and said he was excited to nominate a woman to oversee the department, where only about 17% of officers are female. Others are skeptical because she comes from the city’s deeply troubled police department, which is under a federal consent decree after a U.S. Department of Justice investigation found widespread discriminatory and unconstitutional policing.
The county executive’s pick disappointed those who wanted an internal candidate — including the Blue Guardians, which represents minority officers on the 1,900-member county force.
“Right now, Baltimore City does not represent the blue-ribbon standard on policing,” said Blue Guardians President Sgt. Anthony Russell, whose group supported county police Col. Al Jones for the chief position and criticized the search process as lacking transparency.
A University of Delaware graduate, Hyatt launched her city career in 1997 after graduating from the first class of the Maryland Police Corps, part of a federal effort to recruit college students into law enforcement. She worked foot patrol in Park Heights before joining a mobile enforcement team that responded to high-crime areas. Then she joined the SWAT team — where male colleagues towered over the 5-foot-2 Hyatt — and later supervised the squad.
She eventually rose to roles including commander of the Central District, chief of patrol and chief of special operations.
“She’s never, ever allowed for anybody to make her feel like she couldn’t achieve anything,” said Baltimore Police Maj. Ettice Brickus. But Hyatt also encouraged others, Brickus said, saying Hyatt helped her at critical time in her career.
Hyatt was an incident commander during the 2015 unrest in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray, making decisions about the deployment of officers. The following year, she managed police response to demonstrations as the officers charged in Gray’s death went on trial.
“Most police executives have never seen half of what Melissa Hyatt has seen in her career,” said Kevin Davis, the former Baltimore police commissioner. “She has been through the fire, and I think that’s who you want to lead an organization during such a tumultuous time in American law enforcement.”
Hyatt “has a relentless work ethic,” Davis said. “She’s an absolute perfectionist, and she pays attention to detail unlike any other commander I’ve ever met in my career.”
Hyatt says she got her attention to detail from her father, Sidney Hyatt, a retired Baltimore police major who looked “absolutely spotless” when he went to work. As a child, she watched him polish his shoes and prepare his uniform in their Randallstown home in the evenings.
“From a very young age, she always wanted to be a police officer,” said Sidney Hyatt, who recalls her reading his law enforcement manuals as she grew up.
Her mother, who worked as a dental hygienist, taught her and her sister to stand up for themselves, Melissa Hyatt said. When Hyatt wanted to take an advanced weightlifting class at Randallstown High, the school initially wouldn’t let her because the class was only for boys. But her mother contacted the school and later, the school let her participate.
Hyatt said she becomes more determined when someone thinks she can’t do something — an attitude that has “let me cut out a lot of noise.”
She feels at her best in pressure-filled situations.
“For some people, time speeds up and they don’t necessarily always manage the chaos,” she said. For her, “everything slows down. And I actually feel like I operate better under those circumstances.”
In Baltimore, she developed a specialty managing major public events that draw large crowds, like marathons and the Grand Prix.
She was the department’s highest-ranking woman when Hopkins hired her last year. She has served in that role as Hopkins lobbied for its own armed police department, a controversial plan that raised concerns about racial profiling, over-policing and other issues. After state lawmakers approved legislation authorizing the police force, opponents organized a sit-in at Garland Hall that lasted more than a month before Baltimore police arrested seven protesters May 8.
Hyatt testified on behalf of the Hopkins bill and oversaw security operations during the sit-in. She said she has tried to learn from those who “don’t see the world the same way that I do.”
“The important part is that we’re able to come together and we’re able to talk about it and discuss our differences,” she said.
Hyatt said she wants to observe the county department before laying out an agenda, but said she would place high priority on community relations.
Baltimore Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer said Hyatt “genuinely cares about people.”
“Officers that have worked for her will tell you that she holds people accountable, she’s extremely hardworking and she gets the job done,” said Schleifer, who represents the city’s northwest neighborhoods. “When there might be chaos all around you and a lot of things are happening, she’s somebody that keeps thing under control.”
Ralikh Hayes, a community organizer in Baltimore who has worked for policing reform, said face-to-face interactions with Hyatt during protests were better than with other city police officers.
“I will give her props for her emotional control ... in a tense situation, which is better than any of her male counterparts,” Hayes said.
But Hayes said he can’t trust those who came from the city police department, given its history.
“Somebody that has made their career in BPD is aware of that corruption and shouldn’t be asked to lead another department,” he said.
This past December, a city police officer alleged in a federal lawsuit that he faced retaliation from colleagues after expressing his concerns that police were misusing resources in the Marine Unit, which fell under Hyatt’s chain of command at the time.
Hyatt is not named as a defendant in the case. The lawsuit filed by Jeffry E. Taylor claims an acquaintance of Hyatt complained that a boat in the Inner Harbor was an eyesore, and that Hyatt instructed the unit supervisor to remove it “despite the fact that the boat was not illegally anchored or moored.”
Hyatt said she couldn’t comment on the case because the litigation is pending.
She said she understands skepticism from critics of the city police department, but said she worked “with the highest moral standards” during her time at the agency.
“I took pride in putting on the uniform every day,” she said. “I can understand that there are people that are skeptical, but I would say that when I join Baltimore County, they’ll see that same level of commitment and integrity from me.”
Education: Bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, University of Delaware; master’s degree in management, Johns Hopkins University
Experience: 20 years with the Baltimore Police Department, where roles included chief of patrol and chief of the special operations division; vice president for security at Johns Hopkins since 2018
Family: Married to Jevon Dolan