Though it's not literally correct to say Cornelius J. "Neil" Behan is the Baltimore County police department, it's hard to imagine the chief without thinking of the department, and vice versa.
Chief Behan, who announced his retirement Tuesday, earned such a distinctive place in recent county history not merely through the longevity of his 16-year tenure, but largely by the way he transformed a disorderly, factionalized force into a professional outfit of top quality. His courageous and persistent stands for gun control and his nationwide advocacy of modern law enforcement methods, such as community policing, also brought honor to his department, his county and himself.
He earned some of his most bitter enemies over the years through his staunch support of gun control. Pro-gun groups tried but failed to oust him -- to their dismay, but to the county's good fortune. Even after a particularly violent crime in the county left law-abiding citizens thinking about arming themselves, Chief Behan continued to assert that guns wouldn't settle such concerns.
Getting away from gun nuts isn't the only reason the chief has chosen this as his time to step down. No doubt the county's fiscal crisis was a key factor in his decision. The subdivision's economic woes have invaded even the police department, which has had to cut costs by parking police cars to save gas and assigning desk officers to street patrols. Only by making a special plea to the County Council last spring was the chief able to prevent further cuts to his budget.
The county's top cop must also face the difficulties associated with growing urbanization. Baltimore County increasingly resembles the city it surrounds, especially the region around the beltway. Crime woes in the county still pale beside those of the city, but the next police chief will probably have to confront problems that have only begun to surface at the end of Chief Behan's tenure.
In addition, there are the simple facts that the chief is 68 and has devoted 46 years to police work. The man deserves a rest. 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.
There was some nice irony in that Chief Behan, a proud Irish-American who spent 31 years with the New York police department, announced his retirement the day before St. Patrick's Day. His long, praiseworthy career could be said to have been blessed with the luck of the Irish. Likewise was Baltimore County lucky to have Neil Behan as its police chief for so long.