Former Police Chief offers vignettes of '50s Laurel [Commentary]

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If you want to see Malcolm Brown become animated, just ask him about what it was like working as a police officer — and later chief — in Laurel, circa 1955. His tasty vignettes are like food for the soul, channeling, perhaps, not a better, but different era.

Brown was in the thick of reminiscing with members of the coffee circle at the McDonald's on All Saints Road. Lots of howls, lots of caffeine, tons of fun. Even at 80, Brown still finds the energy to work a few hours a week at Laurel Automotive.


In the Laurel of nine presidents ago, the $3,800 Brown earned as an officer and the $6,000 he got as chief were considered respectable salaries, and Tasers, armored personnel vehicles and red-light camera enforcement were the stuff of sci-fi movies. Believe it or not, police cars in Laurel weren't even equipped with radios. A far cry from the nearly 39,000 calls for service the Laurel Police handled in 2012.

"When you looked down the street," Brown said, his blue eyes sparkling, "you could tell if any strangers were there or if anybody had company." The only exception to the pattern was when many out-of-towners would be here during Laurel's horse racing season.


"And the people on Main Street couldn't believe they were building a shopping center. That was where you would drive around at nighttime, missing the rabbits," Brown said.

In those days, drivers had to feed parking meters on Main Street. When Freddy Campbell, the meter guy, was on the j-o-b,  people tended to pay close attention to what was in the meter. "When people would see him, they would rush out and put a penny in, or a nickel, to do an hour," Brown recalled.

Brown said there was an officer, Charlie Wells, who didn't have a driver's license. "He walked the beat. If he had a call, someone from the Rescue Squad would drive him," Brown said. At that time, he explained, the police station and the squad were both on Little Montgomery Street.

"In those days, sometimes there was nobody on duty at the Police Department" at night, he said. "You'd have to call up to the State Police at Waterloo. The only radio we had was monitoring on the State Police frequency. We used the 810 frequency. We knew messages from the (state) dispatcher on that frequency were for us."

During Brown's days on the force, the city had one officer on duty overnight. Prince George's County had one police car in the entire northern end. Howard County relied on two cars, one in Lisbon, in the far west, and one around Laurel. Meanwhile, the state had one trooper, whose territory stretched from near Jessup to College Park. Given Laurel's remote location in a low-tech civilization, Brown said "in those days, Hyattsville was Upper Marlboro; Upper Marlboro was another world."

Come evening, Brown said, he would walk the beat, making sure all the doors along Main Street were locked. He would multitask, too, turning his critical eye down to Route 1. "Hot roddin" was another issue. "One of the biggest places to gather was the Little Tavern.  The ex-mayor, Harry Hardingham, used to say one of the big failures of his administration was he could not control the crowd at Little Tavern."

Other big hangouts, he noted, were at places along southbound Route 1 like Tag's, the Paddock and the Laurel Hotel. In the days before Laurel got its first McDonald's, someone named Herb had the great idea of opening a carryout chicken and shrimp place, which fast became a beehive of activity along the strip. Come Sunday morning, "people would come to church and there would be white boxes laying around."

Other quirky memories formed like a cascading waterfall. Brown would often find himself wading in boundary matters. One time, he recalled, a fisherman in the Patuxent River drowned, but his body was slow to surface. "Everybody from Laurel, Anne Arundel and Howard stood around to see what county the body came up in. It came up in Howard;  we said `your case, Howard County!' "


Brown laughed when talking about how theCity Council took up the matter of introducing automatic transmission in all police cars. "It was hard when you worked all night," he said, demonstrating by moving his left foot on a make-believe clutch. After heated debate, the council agreed to switch.

At mid-morning, after bidding a member of the klatch goodbye, Brown shifted gears, reflecting on what old-school Laurel meant to him. "Everyone knew everybody. I knew peoples' kids, their aunts and uncles. People looked out for each other."