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Joppa View 1st-graders give a big lift to wounded police officer

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

Wearing badge and gun, Barry Sweitzer strides into the classroom at Joppa View Elementary School, a man with a mission.

Sweitzer, a strapping Baltimore County policeman, has come to read nursery rhymes. He squeezes into a chair, opens a book and greets Donna Dillon's fascinated first-grade class.

"Mary had a little goat. . ."

"LAMB!" the children shout in unison.

Sweitzer feigns disbelief.

"Are you sure?" he asks.

The room explodes in laughter.

"Officer Barry" is a hit at Joppa View, a regular stop on the policeman's beat during his difficult recovery from a gunshot wound nearly three years ago. Sweitzer is part of a program designed to develop a closer and more cooperative relationship between young people and the police.

The visits have been therapeutic for the 29-year-old officer who came face to face with death and is still haunted by the episode.

Twice a month, Sweitzer visits the school in Perry Hall to share his experiences with first-graders and to explain the tools of his trade, from nightstick to ticket book.

Someday he will show them The Scar, a grim 14-inch reminder of his struggle with a drug-crazed gunman in 1989.

Harder to reveal is Sweitzer's wounded psyche. He is a police hero, but even heroes suffer. There is no bulletproof armor for an officer's mind, no matter how courageously he has acted.

Sweitzer, still recovering from that attack, believes his classroom appearances favor both kids and cop.

"I can walk in and just feel the warmth," he says. "I think they know now that policemen are good."

The children are also curious about the assault on Sweitzer, named 1990 Policeman of the Year by the Maryland Chiefs of Police.

"The kids always ask me to relive [the shooting]," he says. "They want to know what the other man looked like, and was he a bad man.

"The questions don't bother me. The kids don't know it, but this is therapy for me. It keeps me from exploding. I come here to be with a roomful of little psychiatrists, about 20 of them."

A 6-year-old in a purple dress gazes curiously at the pouch of 9 mm ammunition attached to the policeman's belt.

"Those bullets can really hurt, can't they?" she asks innocently.

Sweitzer nods.

"If you've ever been burned on a hot stove, it's 50 times worse," he says -- and recollections of the gunfight come swirling back.

At 2:42 a.m. on Jan. 23, 1989, Sweitzer confronted a suspicious-looking long-haired man outside an Essex apartment complex. While he was being frisked, the man spun quickly, aimed a pistol at Sweitzer's head and threatened to kill him. Then, pressing his weapon into the officer's back, the attacker said, "I'm gonna take your gun, and we're gonna take a walk."

As the man yanked Sweitzer's pistol from its holster, the officer whirled and grasped both guns, which were pointed at him.

Enraged, the gunman fired wildly eight times. The last slug, from a .357-caliber Magnum, ripped the patrolman's bladder twice before exiting through his right buttock.

Sweitzer recalls feeling "a tremendous burning sensation, but I blocked out the pain in a second."

The men were still wrestling when help arrived.

A helicopter rushed Sweitzer to the Shock-Trauma Unit in Baltimore, where he underwent two life-saving operations to repair the internal damage.

Sweitzer's life has changed dramatically since the shooting. For a while, he had a phobia that the gunman was stalking him and would strike when Sweitzer was asleep.

"I could almost see him coming down the hallway toward me," the officer says. "Several times his image in the dark was so vivid that I took my pistol off the nightstand and pointed it at the door."

The visions ceased when Sweitzer learned that the suspect had committed suicide in his jail cell four months after the shooting. Sweitzer, who is not married, still keeps a revolver at bedside alongside the rosary that someone hung on his hospital IV pole following surgery.

Sweitzer returned to duty following months of rehabilitation, only to collapse with fierce cramps while guarding a prisoner at Franklin Square Hospital last September. Abdominal scar tissue had constricted his intestinal tract. Sweitzer says the pain recurs about once a month.

More troubling, he says, was his increased agitation while on patrol. Responding to certain calls, Sweitzer noticed men with long hair and scruffy beards who resembled his assailant.

"I would become terrified, though I knew people were depending on me," he says. Once, after quelling a domestic dispute, Sweitzer asked another officer to complete the call while he excused himself from the scene.

Sometimes Sweitzer worried that his attacker was not dead but dialing 911, and that his police unit would respond, and that the two men would finally "fight to the death."

Six months ago, Sweitzer sought counseling and a transfer. He is now a firearms instructor at the county's pistol range.

"I was Mr. Impenetrable Policeman for two years because I thought I was tough," he says. "But things just kept escalating. I finally woke up thinking, 'Sweitzer, you're not nuts, but you're not Mr. Tough Guy either. So do something before you hit rock-bottom and get in trouble.'

"That's when I started getting the answers that will let me live on an even keel for the rest of my life. Before I got shot, I thought I

was Mr. Stud and the average person was a moron. Now I realize that I'm just like everyone else. Policemen aren't robocops; everything doesn't bounce off us."

Last spring, when Joppa View Elementary started a dialogue between students and police, Sweitzer was the first of five patrolmen to volunteer for the program -- Project LOVE (Love Officers Very Easily).

This year, 23 officers are involved, 19 from Baltimore County and four from the Maryland State Police. Each officer adopts one class and visits it regularly to interact with youngsters in an instructive but easy-going manner.

Sweitzer's message is a simple one: Don't touch guns, take drugs or talk to strangers.

"Remember what I said about what that bad man did to me? He was on three kinds of drugs at the time," Sweitzer tells the class. "That bad man on drugs shot me. Guns are bad; don't touch guns."

Someone asks to see his pistol. Sweitzer politely refuses.

"It's not a play toy," he says. "When a policeman pulls his gun, he has a reason for using it."

Instead, he passes his hat into eager hands. The youngsters proceed to model it comically on heads two sizes too small.

Sweitzer retrieves the hat and tries it on himself.

A girl with pigtails smiles shyly. "You look cute in that hat," she says, and Sweitzer's face reddens. It is sometimes hard to tell who has adopted whom.

Because the class views Sweitzer's visits as a treat, the children are receptive to his advice, says Dillon, the first-grade teacher.

The frequency of the visits is also important, she says. "Just once or twice doesn't get the message across; [the pupils] need constant reinforcement."

So do police officers, says Sweitzer. They need to feel appreciated, and they need reminders that law enforcement means protecting the innocent.

"The kids give you hugs," he says. "You can't imagine the feeling. They may be little kids, but they care about you, and that's enough for me. It's therapy to be around them, to see their faces.

"We are here to let them know we care -- so that later on, when they reach a vulnerable age, they may make the right decisions.

"All we want to do is to keep them away from the dark side -- and there is a lot of the dark side out there."

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