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Officers see benefits across the line

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Just two years ago, Donald K. Ossmus was charming a confession out of a killer in the rape and bludgeoning of a real estate agent whose body was found stuffed in a closet of a West Baltimore house she had been showing.

This summer, he spent a morning holding up traffic on Warren Road in Cockeysville, looking through bushes and scanning a busy stretch of road to search for . . . a duck.

"I've gone from big city detective to duck crossing guard," he said of his switch from city homicide detective to patrolman on the Baltimore County Police Department.

Officer Ossmus, 40, is part of a wave of police veterans who have left the city to join the county force in the past year.

In fact, 15 of the 20 officers who joined the county department in special recruitment classes for veterans have been from Baltimore City, prompting an outcry from the city police union that the county is handpicking the city's best, such as Officer Ossmus and fellow former homicide investigator Jay C. Landsman. The exodus was triggered by the city police commissioner's plan to rotate officers' assignments, the union says.

But Officers Ossmus and Landsman say they headed to the 'burbs for simpler reasons: They were eligible for city pensions, and opted for higher income and lower stress by crossing the border. The moves were not prompted by the rotation policy or discontent with the city Police Department, they say.

Now, more than a year later, the former detectives say they have no regrets about leaving the city department that they had called home for more than 20 years -- and the jobs that had taken them to murder scene after murder scene.

Now, even mundane tasks such as serving as a mediator between an arguing gas station attendant and customer, or being a savior of ducks, can be wonderful.

"Everybody had a pretty good laugh over that one," said Officer Ossmus, recalling the duck incident as he patrolled Cockeysville neighborhoods.

"It was kind of hard to believe that I could be sent to help a duck and her babies cross the road because that kind of thing would never happen in the city. But when you've seen and done the things that Jay and I have done and seen, it's almost refreshing to get a duck call."

Officer Landsman, 44, a jokester who was one of the detectives featured in the book "Homicide," by Sun reporter David Simon, adds: "I'd always said that after 20 years on the force, I'd look for something else. I originally applied to be a brain surgeon, but my education wasn't up to par and they turned me down. . . .

"Seriously, I'm collecting a pension now, making good money with the county and actually spending more time at home. This is really just a great deal. I love it out here."

The combined salary and pension provide about 38 percent more than their city salaries, both men say.

It wasn't just the pay that was attractive, they say, but the fact that the county was so different. Getting used to the county paperwork and police codes was challenging, but manageable; acclimating to the friendly atmosphere and slower pace of crime was a little harder.

A typical fender bender on Cranbrook Road had Officer Ossmus filling out an accident report and dealing with two distressed drivers. It took him less time to have both owners smiling than to write the report, completed in about 15 minutes.

"The last accident report I wrote for the city was in 1978," he said. "but if I can help it at all, it'll be 2078 before I write another one."

He's come full circle since joining the city force in 1973 as a cadet. After graduating from the city academy, Officer Ossmus moved through the department from patrolman to undercover narcotics officer to robbery detective and finally homicide in 1992, where he happily worked on "the ultimate crimes."

In 1993, he linked shell casings to find a killer who committed two slayings in different locations. Late that year, he and his partner flew to Illinois to bring back the killer of Lynne McCoy, the real estate agent who was slain Dec. 21, 1993.

"When I got out here, I was ready to go, go, go," he said. "It took awhile to accept the fact that things are very laid back out here. I haven't pulled my gun once since I've been out here."

Although more people live in Baltimore County than the city, the crime rate is much lower. The county had 31 homicides last year among its 7,188 reported violent crimes, which include rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults; in the city, 321 homicides were recorded among nearly 20,000 violent crimes.

"I thought it was something else when I saw that we had computers in our cars," Officer Ossmus said. "But what's more strange is in the city, when you have a crime investigation, you would spend half an hour looking for the guy's name and another half an hour trying to find out where he lives.

"Here, when you ask them for their names, they tell you their real names. They don't lie. It's amazing."

For Officer Landsman, the move to the county also was a welcome improvement.

After graduating from the city academy in 1972, he rose quickly from patrol to narcotics vice squad to the auto theft unit. In 1979, he had a short stint in homicide but left when he was promoted to sergeant. After nine months working arson cases, he was back in homicide.

Officer Landsman solved many cases, including the slaying of a Kmart manager in a shooting witnessed by the victim's young son, and made arrests in the killings of two police officers.

"You just don't feel like it's hopeless out here," said Officer Landsman, who was named the Garrison Precinct officer of the month for rescuing an elderly man found bound and gagged at a Pikesville motel in April.

The name of the game is satisfaction, he said, adding, "You want everyone fairly happy when you leave them." It's a game that he seems to have perfected.

On a recent call, an angry woman complaining about a teen-age vandal at her apartment building smiled and waved as Officer Landsman promised to handle the problem. Hours later, when he accidentally caught up to the young suspect in another incident, Officer Landsman extracted a grin, a handshake and a solemn promise from the teen not to go near the building again.

"I do miss [being a detective] sometimes," he said. "But you'd miss anything that you've done for almost 23 years. . . . I did homicide for 15 years.

"I can't say I miss the long hours. I can't say I miss dealing with the families of dead people. And I don't miss missing out on being with my wife and kids," he said.

"Better salary, better benefits, better work conditions and no threat of rotation," said Officer Gary McLhinney, president of Baltimore's Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3. "Without a doubt, it's a great deal.

"I can't blame them for leaving. Baltimore County is sitting back and licking their chops. They can choose the cream of the crop, and that's exactly what they've done. Any jurisdiction would be lucky to have men like Ossmus and Landsman."

Supervisors for the 40-something rookie veterans couldn't agree more.

"The great thing about Jay is that he's had 23 years down in Baltimore already and he can still come out here like he's a 21-year-old rookie," said Garrison Precinct supervisor Cpl. David Folderauer, 16 years Officer Landsman's junior. "All the guys out here love him. I hope I'm the same way when I'm his age."

Officer Ossmus is no less revered in Cockeysville. "Don brings a lot of experience to this shift, and he doesn't have a know-it-all attitude," said supervisor Cpl. Jeff C. Tracey.

Despite their new-found joy in patrol duty, Officers Landsman and Ossmus are eager to return to detective work. You can't stop doing something you love for too long, they say. Both plan to apply for the job in a year, after their probation period.

And if the police thing doesn't work out?

"I wouldn't mind being a mortician," Officer Landsman said, laughing. "Then again, maybe after another 20 years here, I'll go do the brain surgeon thing."

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