Don’t miss Orioles players, John Means & Paul Fry, as they guest host at our Brews and O’s event!

Pomerleau dies revitalized police


Donald D. Pomerleau, the Marine Corps veteran who took charge of a foundering, demoralized Baltimore Police Department in 1966 and made it a model law enforcement agency, died yesterday at age 76.

Emily Pomerleau, his wife of 24 years, said that the former police commissioner died shortly after midnight after a long struggle with kidney cancer. Though he was sick the last two years of his life, he remained in the rural Edwardsville, Va., home on the banks of Hull Creek where he and Mrs. Pomerleau moved six years ago.

Taking over the Police Department at its nadir, Mr. Pomerleau raised the force to its authorized strength, boosted salaries, increased days off for officers, computerized crime prevention techniques, assembled a fleet of helicopters to respond to emergencies and established a modern crime laboratory reputed be among the finest in the nation.

However, his 15-year tenure as police commissioner, one of the longest in the history of the department, was fraught with arguments about unionization of the force, which he vigorously opposed, testy relations at times with city officials and allegations that he allowed wiretaps and credit checks of people who were not suspected of committing any crime.

Nevertheless, Gov. William Donald Schaefer, while mayor of Baltimore, called Mr. Pomerleau "the greatest police administrator anywhere," and a 1981 Evening Sun commentary at the time of his retirement observed that "friends and foes alike credit him with taking a battered, limping Police Department and turning it into a highly rated modern force."

Mr. Pomerleau was especially cited for his command of the department during the Baltimore riots that followed the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The commissioner forbade his policemen to shoot at looters or suspected arsonists and admonished them to use their weapons only in self-defense.

Black leaders praised the restraint of the department, and Lt. Gen. Robert H. York, commander of federal troops during the rioting, said he could not "praise them [the police] too highly."

Mr. Pomerleau was always a vigorous administrator who, according to his own approach to management, did not shrink from making decisions, controversial though they may have been.

He was also a chain smoker, assertive to the point of being arrogant, according to one critic, and a person who eschewed personal publicity -- though on one occasion he adjusted that persona to suit the occasion: When most of the department's vehicles were immobilized by a 20-inch snowfall in 1979, the commissioner donned a cowboy hat, climbed on a horse and patrolled the city streets with other mounted policemen to halt looting.

The other enduring influence on his life was his military past.

"I started out in the U.S. Marine Corps as a private and ended up as a lieutenant colonel," he once recalled while defining his approach to running the Police Department.

"You don't achieve anything in the Marines or out here [in civilian life] unless you're quite willing to be held accountable and to make decisions. . . . Why would anyone want to employ a department head who would sit back and wait for someone to tell him what to do?"

Donald David Pomerleau was born Aug. 31, 1915, and grew up in northeastern Montana, where his family had a farm. He rode a horse to school in Whitehall, a town six miles away with a population of about 200. His high school graduating class

numbered eight.

The young man wanted to go to college but could not afford the expense in those Depression years. He joined the Marines instead, served in China from 1934 to 1937 and was honorably discharged as a sergeant the following year.

He re-enlisted in the Marine Corps after the United States entered World War II and was sent to the Pacific theater. He also served in the Korean War and retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel in 1958 after four years as provost of the Marine Corps School at Quantico, Va.

Returning to civilian pursuits, Mr. Pomerleau was director of public safety in Kingsport, Tenn., for four years before taking a similar post in Miami. He left Miami in 1964 to join the International Association of Chiefs of Police, becoming a consultant to police forces in Chicago; Washington; Syracuse, N.Y.; Pittsburgh; and, finally, Baltimore.

His effective work here led to his selection as commissioner in 1966.

Among his first acts as commissioner were expanding the community relations division and requiring every member of the force to take a course in black history.

Among his first problems was finding people to become police officers. The department was 408 below its authorized strength of 2,654 men and women. The new commissioner promised his policemen $50 for each recruit persuaded to join the force.

He also recommended a five-day week for officers, paid holidays, better vacations and unlimited sick leave. He reinstituted in-service training programs (there had been none since 1939), provided free college tuition for dozens of officers and sent some men to out-of-state schools for special instruction in various aspects of law enforcement and police management.

Mr. Pomerleau's "cold personality," as one critic put it, did not endear him to some officers, but others contended that they had never known a commissioner with his administrative abilities.

After two years as commissioner, Mr. Pomerleau had persuaded state and local officials to boost the department's budget substantially and was able to increase salaries and improve working conditions.

By March 1969, the department reached its full strength.

The following year, the commissioner said, "We've got one of the top departments in the country, and we couldn't have said that when I came here in 1966. Esprit de corps is outstanding."

However, Mr. Pomerleau's visceral opposition to a police union was a bone in the throat of many officers.

In 1974, about 600 officers walked off the job for four days. Mr. Pomerleau then dismissed the union as bargaining agent and fired 55 officers who had walked out.

In 1981, the 65-year-old commissioner disclosed that he would retire, though his third term as chief of the department was to run until 1984.

He made no public explanation of this decision, but a police spokesman pointed out that Mr. Pomerleau "has been working for 47 years in stressful jobs" and planned to "work his farm" in Northern Virginia.

Aside from his wife, the former Emily Wright, Mr. Pomerleau is survived by a daughter, Nanette P. Martin of Livermore, Calif.; a son, David D. Pomerleau of Reisterstown; a stepson, Gregory W. Barrett of Erlangen, Germany; a stepdaughter, Elizabeth A. Barrett of Toronto; three sisters, Berthamae P. Gaffney of Madison Lake, Mont., Madrene S. Nelson of Winter Springs, Fla., and Marge S. Dow of St. Paul, Minn.; seven grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Services were set for 9:30 a.m. Thursday at the Wicomico Episcopal Church in Wicomico Church, Va. Burial will be with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

"He's going back with the other heroes," Mrs. Pomerleau said last night.

The family suggested donations to the Memorial Fund of Wicomico Episcopal Church, Wicomico Church, Va. 22579.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad