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Baltimore police retire the twirling nightstick, ending a century of use

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Only in Baltimore is it called an espantoon.

Now, after nearly a century of use, the fabled nightstick -- used by city police officers for self-defense and subduing suspects -- is about to become a museum piece, the result of a controversial order by the department's chief.

Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, who has been at the helm just over a year, has chosen a longer baton to replace the stick now seen on the street. The rawhide thong also will become history, ending a time-honored practice of twirling the sticks.

Critics say that the city is sacrificing part of its heritage and that training in how to use the new baton returns the department to an era of more violent policing.

They also worry about potential conflicts of interest because the organization that recommended the change is connected to a nightstick maker.

"There is an unusual amount of criticism from people who have participated in the [training] program," said Officer Gary McLhinney, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3.

"I've heard more complaints in the past month on this issue than anything else."

Mr. Frazier acknowledges that the change "flies in the face of tradition."

But he says the move will standardize the sticks at one weight and length, could help reduce injuries and help officers better defend themselves. Such improvements in equipment and training are "critical in modern-day policing," he says.

Of the twirling, he said, "some people find it incredibly offensive and intimidating. It sends the wrong kind of message of what the police officer is doing and what he intends to do with the stick. Would you walk to an officer twirling one of those?"

The espantoon first surfaced in Baltimore at the turn of the century, when the police department issued the sticks only to night-shift officers.

Before police radios, officers communicated by banging their sticks on the sidewalk. And officers have found many uses for the thong -- from tourniquets to pulling drunks from the Inner Harbor.

Webster's Third Edition dictionary defines the term: "Espantoon, Baltimore, a policeman's club." The term is derived from the word "spontoon," a weapon carried by officers in the Roman legion, according to a police department training bulletin.

Between 22 and 26 inches long and made of seasoned hickory, maple or locust wood, the club -- described in a 1960 Sun headline as "The Policeman's Best Friend" -- has become part of Baltimore lore.

One 1947 Sun article, headlined "Swing Class -- In Blue," explained the intricacies of nightstick twirling. Even then, the article noted, police commanders expressed concern about the image that twirling presented, but were reluctant to change. "After all, telling a policeman not to swing his espantoon would be like asking a happy man not to whistle," it said.

For decades, Baltimore police officers have bought their own sticks -- most often from other officers who turned them out on basement lathes.

Officer Joseph Hlafka, known throughout the department as "Nightstick Joe," started making the sticks early in his career. He charges $30 a stick, some of which are customized with nicknames.

Now, after selling more than 22,000 sticks nationwide, he's losing his local market. "If there is an officer out there who is not carrying one of my sticks, he is not a member of the Baltimore Police Department," he boasted.

The 27-year veteran, who patrols the Inner Harbor, criticized Mr. Frazier for "not considering the historical aspect in all this. It's just a shame. All this history, and he's just throwing it by the wayside."

Officer Hlafka defended the thong as a safety device that prevents people from grabbing the stick and taking it away. The twirling, he said, keeps people from sneaking up on an officer.

"I think people like to see us twirl the stick," added Officer McLhinney. "Criminals don't like to see us twirl the stick. I have bTC heard that twirling the stick is intimidating. It's supposed to be intimidating. It's a stick."

But the commissioner said the change in nightsticks comes from "an analysis of use and injuries and complaints both in terms of internal investigations and image and perception. As we try to become a more community-oriented agency, it's a change I felt necessary to make."

He said he also has "serious concerns" about the variable weight of the privately made nightsticks. "The larger the circumference and the heavier that stick is, the more it is like a bat," he said, while expressing concerns that grooves in the espantoon's handle can cause injuries.

James J. Fyfe, a professor of criminal justice at Temple University and an expert in police use of force, said it is important that departments have standardized equipment.

"They should all have the same [nightstick]," said Mr. Fyfe, a former New York City police officer, adding that many departments across the country are going to the straight baton.

Last year, after Mr. Frazier found Baltimore's police training to be inconsistent, he turned to the California-based Koga Institute. The institute also is used by the San Jose Police Department, where the commissioner worked before coming to Baltimore.

Koga evaluators found that regulations spelling out when Baltimore officers could use force were contained in a series of disjointed memos instead of in uniform guidelines. Koga proposed eliminating officers' "slapjacks" -- hand-held pouches filled with lead -- and changing from the espantoon to the baton.

The institute was founded in 1973 by Robert K. Koga, a former Los Angeles police officer who now travels the country overseeing training classes and testifying in trials as an expert witness on police use of force.

The Koga method is described in promotional materials as a "complete system" similar to aikido, a martial art with Asian roots that combines jujitsu and Greco-Roman wrestling.

The training method has been used by many departments, including the U.S. Secret Service, the Saudi Arabia Royal Guards and the Denver Police Department.

William Pelkey, executive director of the Koga Institute, denied that the training is violent.

"It is specifically designed for police officers for what they need on the street," he said. "It is control, not punishment -- the quickest and safest way for all concerned."

But one Baltimore police officer who recently went through the training said instructors emphasize a two-handed strike aimed at the chest or joints. Previous training had officers aiming for large muscle mass or the legs.

"This is the most dangerous thing I've seen," said the officer, who spoke on the condition that he not be named. The officer said many Baltimore officers prefer to use pepper spray.

Don Cameron, who once worked for Koga and is now a police training consultant in California, said Mr. Koga has "got some very traditional ideas. A lot of police officers who aren't in the martial arts don't understand him. I think that's where some of the turnoff is."

The city Police Department is authorized to spend up to $60,000 on Koga training, which includes classes in use of the new nightstick and a variety of self-defense and arrest techniques.

Officer McLhinney, the police union president, says the relationship between Koga and the department holds the potential for conflicts of interest. He notes that Mr. Koga also runs Sueko Inc., which makes nightsticks. And Koga only will endorse departments that use a nightstick fitting its precise specifications.

"Koga came in and recommended training which only it offers, and recommended a nightstick which only it sells," said Officer McLhinney, who is concerned about the bid process.

"We had a real hard time trying to get good batons made," said Virginia McAlpine, the office manager for Sueko, which is located in the same building as the Koga Institute.

Other companies can make the baton, she said, but would probably have to do it on special order to fit Koga's requirements. She added that she would "be very surprised" if Baltimore bought the $19 nightsticks that Sueko makes. "I would certainly understand if they would want to buy them from a local vendor."

Baltimore purchasing officials, who said the city plans to put the nightstick contract out to bid by the end of the week, have identified 15 to 18 companies that could be interested in making the 3,000 sticks.

For example, Brown Wood Products of Northfield, Ill., could make 29-inch straight batons for $7.25 each, said Jini Hubbell, the company's customer service manager.

Mr. Pelkey said Mr. Koga hasn't decided whether to bid on Baltimore's contract. It might be seen as a conflict because the institute provided specifications for the city, he added.

"I'm not too sure that this kind of a contract would be in the best interest of the institute or Sueko Inc.," he said. "Making money and providing services sometimes need to be kept separately."

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