The fast rise of Johnny C. Whitehead, soon to be the first black captain in the Baltimore County Police Department, is a symbol of how far -- and slowly -- the county force has progressed.
Whitehead, 35, will become the county's highest ranking black officer when he receives his captain's rank Monday in ceremonies at Oregon Ridge Park. Twenty-two other officers also will be promoted.
Whitehead embodies the department's efforts to recruit more black and female officers since the county government was sued by the U.S. Justice Department for job discrimination in 1978. But he also is a symbol of the county's slow pace in promoting blacks since the federal suit was settled in 1980.
Out of 1,581 officers, six blacks have been promoted past patrolman and 13 white women have attained higher ranks.
William L. Turner, the first black officer to reach lieutenant, attained that rank 10 years ago. He and Whitehead are the only black lieutenants on the county force, along with two white female lieutenants.
The county now has 115 black patrol officers and 109 white women at the entry level rank, a huge increase over 1978, when only 10 county police and two firefighters were black. The county Fire Department now has 64 blacks and 72 white women out of 1,231 uniformed people.
Whitehead will assume command of the Cockeysville precinct Tuesday.
His career is perhaps a model of what county Police Chief Cornelius J. Behan might have envisioned when he appeared in television commercials in 1979 to urge blacks to consider his department.
Whitehead, a West Baltimore youth who attended Merganthaler Vocational-Technical High School to learn to be an electrician, saw Behan in one of those commercials and followed his chief's advice. "It's been all up since then," Whitehead said.
The round-faced, boyish-looking officer said he did well at Mervo and placed high on a union eligibility test for an apprenticeship. But he wasn't selected for one, and enrolled instead at the Community College of Baltimore as a full-time student.
While a student, he struck up a talk with the city beat patrolman in his Edmondson Avenue neighborhood, who told the 19-year-old that he could be a city police cadet and earn $8,000 a year and the city would pay his tuition at CCB.
He jumped at what sounded like big money in 1976, passed the required tests and joined the city force. Three years later, though, after two years without a pay raise on a beat in the crime-ridden Western district, he saw Behan's commercial.
"I never considered the county," Whitehead said, mainly because he wasn't familiar with it. He went through the county training academy, served as a patrolman and made the jumps to corporal in 1984, sergeant in 1985 and lieutenant in 1988.
Since 1986, Whitehead has been the force's legislative liaison, working with the county's General Assembly delegation on crime-related bills and helping Behan, a nationally known advocate of gun control, evaluate federal legislation and proposed gun control laws. He's 18 credits away from a University of Baltimore undergraduate degree in political science, he said.
According to Whitehead and Lt. Mary Kim Ward, of the department's recruitment squad, the opportunities for promotion are available for blacks and women if they take advantage of them.
Whitehead said many black officers just don't bother taking the advancement tests, either because they like the special squads to which many are assigned or because they don't want to give up comfortable shifts.
"Out of the 50 or 60 [blacks] eligible, at most 10 take the tests," Whitehead said.
Ward, who joined the force in 1981, said promotions are not as subjective as they once were and the department's management encourages people to try for promotion. In the last several years, the department has created a career development office staffed by two trained civilian counselors to help officers interested in advancement.
Ward's aim in recruitment, she said, is to get people with the potential for advancement to join the department, thus increasing the pool of officers potentially promotable.
Whitehead, who lives in Woodlawn with his wife, a county school principal, and their 4-month-old son, said the numbers may not look encouraging on minority promotions, but "clearly, the opportunity is there."
Promotions for 23 officers
In ceremonies at Oregon Ridge Park Monday, 23 Baltimore County police will be promoted.
The officers, and the rank they will attain, are:
Capts. Kevin L. Sanzenbacher and Ernest L. Crist, both to major.
Lts. Johnny C. Whitehead, James W. Johnson and Jeffrey M. Caslin, all to captain.
Sgts. Thomas P. Amann, Robin F. Dewberry, Richard K. Higdon and George C. Rogers, all to lieutenant.
Cpls. Thomas P. Bachur, Evan M. Cohen, Regina A. Ecker, Howard B. Hall, Clifford C. Hisker 3rd, John R. Riebel and Jonathan P. Trentzsch, all to sergeant.
Officers James N. Chaconas, William L. Duty, Paul S. Franzoni, Stephen M. Gossage, Mark A. Lewis, Richard D. Lisko and Thomas E. McLewes, all to corporal.