When Cornelius J. "Neil" Behan became police chief of Baltimore County in 1977, the department was a jumble of factions. It wasn't long, however, before he transformed the disorderly force into a professional outfit of top quality. He also brought honor to his department, his county and himself through his gutsy stands for gun control and his nationwide advocacy of modern law enforcement methods, including community policing.
Chief Behan announced his retirement yesterday, but he must have felt for a while that this would be a good time to step down. He is 68 years old and has devoted a half-century to police work. If the chief doesn't deserve to enjoy himself now, then no one does. Also, Col. Michael Gambrill, who will officially succeed Chief Behan in six months, is a veteran member of the force and has been well groomed to lead the department.
Yet other factors probably helped sell Chief Behan on retirement -- Baltimore County's fiscal crisis key among them. Not even the police department has been immune to the subdivision's economic woes. To cut costs, the department has had to park police cars to save gas and assign desk officers to street patrols. The chief was able to prevent further cuts to his budget only by making a special plea to the County Council last spring. That the council granted his request is testimony to the high esteem in which Chief Behan is widely held.
In addition to budget headaches, the county's top cop nowadays faces the difficulties associated with increasing urbanization. Baltimore County more and more resembles the city it envelops, particularly the areas around the beltway. The county's crime woes still pale beside those of Baltimore City. The next police chief, though, will likely have to deal with various problems that have only begun to surface near the end of Chief Behan's tenure.
While widely admired and routinely bestowed with awards, Chief Behan has had his detractors. His backing of gun control measures made him an enemy of pro-gun groups, which have tried but failed to get him ousted. (The gun lovers' loss was the county's gain.) Other critics said he spent too much time on out-of-town speeches and not enough time on county police business. Still, his force managed to become the first large police department in the United States to earn a special accreditation from law-enforcement officers from around the country.
Neil Behan leaves the county police department in far better shape than it was in when he arrived 16 years ago. He has much to be proud of as he prepares to end a long and distinguished career in police work. The people of Baltimore County are much in his debt.