Retired police commissioner Pomerleau dies


Donald D. Pomerleau, the retired Marine colonel who reigned as Baltimore's most controversial -- and many say best -- police commissioner during an era of turbulent social and political change, died yesterday at his home in Northern Virginia. He was 76.

Services for Mr. Pomerleau will be held at 2 p.m. Thursday at the Wicomico Episcopal Church in Wicomico Church, Va. Burial will be at 1 p.m. Friday with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

Mr. Pomerleau came to Baltimore in 1966 to straighten out a creaky, out-of-date, mismanaged, disorganized and demoralized police department. He had the recommendation and mandate of the International Association of Police Chiefs, which had studied the department six months and found it a mess.

The department remains today, a decade after his retirement, largely a reflection of Mr. Pomerleau's work. He streamlined and modernized the Baltimore department. He vastly increased opportunities for blacks and women in the department. He also politicized it and instituted a security division that raised questions of improper wiretapping, searches and spying on people who were not accused of any crimes, nor had committed any.

His watch as commissioner encompassed civil rights demonstrations, the riots in 1968, later Black-Panther-style militancy, impassioned anti-war marches, the first police strike in a major American city in a half-cen

tury, and the 1976 internal security investigations.

He commanded the department for 15 years. And he ran it pretty much the way Gen. Douglas MacArthur ran Japan: somewhat more imperiously than the Emperor.

The most enduring symbol of Mr. Pomerleau's reign is perhaps the image of the commissioner crowned with a cowboy hat mounted on a horse helping his men round up looters during the 1979 blizzard.

When he was sworn in Sept. 22, 1966, as Baltimore's ninth police commissioner, Mr. Pomerleau replaced Gen. George M.

Gelston,the commanding officer of the Maryland National guard, who was interim commissioner.The calm, unflappable and patrician General Gelston had been credited with averting major racial conflict during the sizzling summer of 1966.

Mr. Pomerleau had been director of public safety for Kingsport, Tenn., and Dade County, Fla., and a consultant for the I.A.C.P. in Chicago, Syracuse, Washington, Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

"Times are not changing," he said, as he took over his new job. "They have changed. And we must change also. And we shall."

He immediately launched a new records system to ensure accurate crime reporting. He instituted management training courses for his deputies. He put foot patrolmen into cars. He sought new and better-qualified officers for a seriously undermanned department. He promised contemporary standards in police pay, workweek and fringe benefits. He said he opposed police unions and civilian review boards, but he said he would back his men and women "all the way when they are right."

He arrived for his first day as commissioner in a cab instead of the limousine that went with the job.

"Exuding an air of quiet firmness," observed a contemporary report, "Pomerleau walked up the ramp at [the old] headquarters, passed through Central District unnoticed and climbed four flights of stairs to his office."

Mr. Pomerleau remained firm, if not downright implacable, throughout his term here, but he'd never again be unnoticed at Police Headquarters.

Typically, the new commissioner immediately asked for a million dollars. Typically, Mayor Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin said the city didn't have the money.

Veteran reporters at police headquarters recall that in their initial meeting, Mr. Pomerleau said: "My door is always open to the press." Then he turned his back, walked into his office and slammed the door.

Coverage of the department had fundamentally changed. Press conferences and interviews became rare. Mr. Pomerleau did not like to be criticized, challenged or even questioned. He expected to be obeyed.

He was a blunt, craggy-faced man who cultivated an image of aloofness and power. He walked with long, forceful strides, militarilyerect, his head cocked slightly to the right. Critics called him arrogant.

He had been a horse Marine in China in the 1930s; a military policeman in World War II on Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan and Tinian; a combat commander during the Korean War; and provost marshal of the Marine Corps School at Quantico, Va. He retired in 1958.

He'd joined the Marines as a private and left a lieutenant colonel. He was born Aug. 31, 1915, on a ranch near Medicine Lake,Mont. He rode a horse to school in Whitehall, population 200. When he graduated from high school in the depth of the Great Depression, there was no money for college and the Marines seemed like a good deal for an ambitious youth.

Early in his tenure as commissioner, Mr. Pomerleau weathered a miniscandal that arose when he used officers to paint and do carpentry work on his home on Keswick Road. Then he battled police wives after he ordered his officers not to accept Christmas gifts. He would often find himself confronting criticism from the black community.

But he remained unruffled when riots spread through American cities after the assassination of Martin Luther King in the spring -- of 1968. He resisted stockpiling arms as some departments had done.

He said police departments should try to prevent riots. He espoused a tactic of going quickly to the use of National Guard troops. That's essentially what happened when riots struck Baltimore.

General Gelston, who commanded the troops, praised the police department. So did Mr. Pomerleau.

"The riots were controlled," he said, "in a minimum amount of time with a minimum number of fatalities."

General Gelston contrasted Baltimore, where weapon use by police and National Guard troops was restrained, with Detroit, where 200,000 rounds were fired and police and National Guards troops were shooting at each other.

Mr. Pomerleau perhaps reached his zenith as commissioner between the riots and his first reappointment in 1972. He told Charles Whiteford, a political reporter for The Sun, that Baltimore had "one of the top departments in the country."

"The esprit de corps is outstanding," he said. "The men are proud ofthemselves . . . proud of the department."

Mr. Pomerleau had motorized the department, modernized communications, installed computers, used helicopters, upgraded the police academy and expanded community relations.

Crime statistics were down and Mr. Pomerleau's salary went up.

A year later, he was fighting corruption in his narcotics and gambling squads. And on June 11, 1974, hundreds of officers walked off their jobs in the first strike in Baltimore police history.

Mr. Pomerleau had reacted mildly when police men and women were organizing a year earlier. He had even supported collective bargaining. But when his people actually went on strike, he reacted with draconian swiftness.

He fired 91 probationary patrolmen, demoted 29 police agents, suspended 26 officers active in the union (24 resigned), transferred 53 detectives -- and broke the strike. It petered out after five days.

"Amnesty will not be granted as long as I am police commissioner," Mr. Pomerleau said.

He kept his vow and the department remained below strength for years. He purged union leaders and reprimanded officers he couldn't fire.

Crime rates began rising again and Mr. Pomerleau launched his famous attempt at firearms control by offering a $50 bounty for every weapon turned in to the police department. He'd gotten the idea at the graveside of Milton Spell, a police officer slain by gunfire.

In about a month, 8,013 guns had been turned in and the department had spent $600,000. Mr. Pomerleau called off the campaign when he couldn't get a federal grant. Critics called the program ill-conceived and said crooks were turning in junk guns to buy better weapons.

Mr. Pomerleau's most difficult crisis came in December 1974 when a News American investigative team reported that his "clandestine" Inspectional Services Division compiled secret dossiers on people considered subversive, but who had not been accused of any crime.

I.S.D. opened files on 60 organizations, 99 men and 212 women, including politicians, public officials, clergymen, reporters and community activists. Blacks seemed to be specifically targeted. On I.S.D. lists were Rep. Parren J. Mitchell; Dr. Emerson Julian and Victorine Q. Adams, from the City Council; the Rev. Marion Bascom and other members of the Black Ministerial Alliance.

Mr. Pomerleau was accused of using the I.S.D. -- which reported directly to him -- for personal and political reasons "to keep tabs on those who criticized him."

He told a special state Senate committee that I.S.D reports went to then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer, the FBI, Army intelligence -- the "normal exchange of information," he said.

The committee concluded in a 157-page report released in January 1976, that indeed spying and wiretapping had been widespread with the full knowledge and consent of Mr. Pomerleau.

Mayor Schaefer defended Mr. Pomerleau and reappointed him commissioner a couple of months later. The 1976 General Assembly had returned appointment of the police commissioner the mayor of Baltimore.

Mr. Pomerleau announced his retirement in 1981, three years before his term was up. On Sept. 1 that year, Frank Battaglia, who had been deputy commissioner in charge of operations for 10 years, took over.

Mr. Pomerleau had served 15 years as commissioner, the longest term in six decades. He had profoundly changed policing in Baltimore. But, ironically, some of the same problems that had plagued the department when he took it over were reappearing. Crime rates were rising, veteran officers resigning and crime clearance rates were down.

He retired to his Northern Virginia farm to tend his apple and pear orchards. And he became senior consultant for Abacus Corp., a security company.

Mr. Pomerleau is survived by his wife, the former Emily Wright; 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 White Springs, Fla., and Marge S. Dow of St. Paul, Minn; seven grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

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

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