Baltimore County police promote 1st black captain


Johnny Whitehead made history yesterday and insisted it was no big deal.

He became the first black officer ever to rise to the rank of captain in Baltimore County's Police Department but downplayed the significance of his promotion, saying every officer has the same chance to get ahead.

"I just feel great, as all the other promotees do," said Captain Whitehead, 35, of Woodlawn. "I do realize that it is significant, but the bottom line is that it is possible."

Captain Whitehead became the county's highest-ranking black officer yesterday when he was sworn in at the promotion ceremony at Oregon Ridge Park, along with 22 other officers promoted to higher ranks, from major to corporal.

"He has done an outstanding job, and he deserves it. Putting any other light on it takes away from Johnny," said County Executive Roger B. Hayden. "I think we have a process that allows all the officers to advance as far as they can."

The department has been trying to recruit and promote more black and female officers since it was sued by the U.S. Justice Department for job discrimination in 1978, a case that was settled two years later.

"The climate for black officers is remarkably different than it was 13 years ago," said Police Chief Cornelius J. Behan.

County officials meet with minority employees to discuss any problems, Mr. Hayden said.

Captain Whitehead said he has been encouraged by other officers throughout his career to take the promotion exam. He added that the process is tough, but it's tough for all the officers.

"It's an even playing field -- there's no room for a lot of discrepancies," Captain Whitehead said. "We have one of the toughest promotion processes, maybe the most difficult in the country."

He said there was a problem before 1979, but after the lawsuit more blacks have joined the force and opportunities for advancement have opened up.

The county has 121 blacks -- six above the rank of patrolman -- on a force of 1,581. But before the suit was settled there were only about 10 black police officers, said Sgt. Stephen Doarnberger, a police spokesman.

Captain Whitehead is one of 30 captains in the department. Captain is the fourth-highest rank, below chief, colonel and major. He said he hoped his promotion would inspire the other black police officers

"One of the things that has encouraged me was working with ranking black officers," Captain Whitehead said. "Hopefully others will see that it happens."

Captain Whitehead assumes command of the Cockeysville precinct today, a prospect that has him looking forward to the challenge of leading 90 officers. He came from the legal division, where he worked in Annapolis as a legislative liaison.

"Working in the legal division, I was in charge of about five officers; now I will be in charge of about 90 officers," he said. "It's going to be a challenge, but I'm looking forward to it." Captain Whitehead became a police officer in 1979 and was promoted to corporal in 1983, sergeant in 1985 and lieutenant in 1988.

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