Baltimore County

Officer replaces Toohey as Balto. Co. police spokesman

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."

Weinhold said civilian spokespeople help departments build trust in the community. For instance, he said, if a police officer does something controversial and a civilian explains the matter, it adds to the police's credibility in the community. "It's not just a quote, un-quote, cover-up," he said.

Baltimore city officials have chosen a wide variety of people to speak for police. Twice since the late 1990s, the department lured television reporters away from local channels. The city job is far more perilous than in the suburbs, where police chiefs tend to rotate through frequently, with most choosing their own spokespeople.

"That's how I got my job, that's how I lost my job," said Matt Jablow, who in 2003 was hired away from a news reporting job for WBAL-TV to be the city police spokesman. Jablow said that joining the department as an outsider, especially after being a reporter, made it difficult at first to get information and earn trust within the department.

"It takes a while to be accepted by the cop on the street," Jablow said, noting that it benefits departments and chiefs to get advice from former reporters "who know what journalists need, when they need it and the form they need it in."

Maj. Andy Ellis, the chief spokesman of the Prince George's County Police Department, also replaced a civilian public information officer. He said the chief wanted an adviser who understood how the department worked and how cops think.

"So much of what our PIOs do is educate the public through reporters as to what our police officers do," Ellis said. "It is invaluable to have a police PIO who can explain police procedures."

But Ellis said it is a challenge to find police officers who can speak in front of the camera without lapsing into stunted language that might work over the police radio or in an incident report but leaves the public hard-pressed to decipher.

"We got to get them out of police-speak," he said. "That's where our civilian PIOs excel. They can talk in a language people can understand."

Civilian spokesmen like Toohey are known for translating police jargon into real sentences that convey a trusted bridge to the public. Outsiders can also challenge police command in ways that officers, even ones at high ranks, cannot, enabling a department's leaders to get advice that might not otherwise be available.

Toohey did not hesitate to remind reporters that he had once been one of them.

"I've had a lot of experience in radio news," he wrote on his open Facebook page, noting that he was National Public Radio's first New York correspondent in the early 1970s.

"I'm hoping one day that will make me an answer in Trivial Pursuit," he wrote.

Toohey also worked as a radio writer and producer at NBC in New York in the mid-1970s, and it was at NBC that he met a newscaster named Rosemary Frisino, whom he subsequently married. She added Toohey to her name and became a successful playwright. They have four children, all in their 20s, including a daughter they adopted in the Philippines when she was 6.

Among his various jobs before landing in Towson, Toohey, a Democrat, served as press secretary for U.S. Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes.

He graduated from Essex Catholic High School in Newark, N.J., in 1963. He earned a bachelor's degree in English from Seton Hall University and a master's degree in mass communications from the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, where he later taught journalism.

He is currently teaching a media ethics class at Towson University, and in the past has given classes there on the press and public opinion and on crisis communications. He said Wednesday that he intends to keep teaching, but that his other plans are up in the air.

Baltimore Sun reporter Mary Gail Hare contributed to this article.