Gambrill legacy is winning program Departing police chief in Balto. Co. praised for gains on his watch


When Terrence B. Sheridan takes over as Baltimore County's police chief in April, he will inherit a department that has recovered from recession-era budget cuts but faces nagging problems.

In three years, the department has grown by 100 police officers, and their presence, combined with better equipment, has boosted morale among the rank and file. Now, the 1,535-officer department is poised for the computer-aided crime-fighting tactics of the next century.

Despite the additional officers, crime has been creeping from the city into the county; armed robberies are increasing. Meanwhile, the Essex Precinct is recovering from damaging developments -- last year two of its officers were charged with felonies.

Chief Michael D. Gambrill, who started walking the beat in Essex 35 years ago, announced Thursday that he is taking a lucrative private security job, one that will allow him to spend more time with his family. He will be succeeded by Mr. Sheridan, the county's executive assistant for school safety and a 30-year veteran of the state police.

"It's been a great ride," Mr. Gambrill said yesterday. "There is an old saying that you can leave a police department two ways: You can retire or be carried out. I'd rather retire."

In September 1993, when he took over, the department had one of the highest vacancy rates and one of the lowest pay scales in the Baltimore area. New patrol cars were scarce, and morale was dismal.

"His biggest problem was having to deal with dwindling resources and an increase in crime," said Lt. L. Timothy Caslin, president of the county's police union.

Since then, Chief Gambrill has been able to get the money from the County Council to hire 412 new employees, including the new officers. He has added helicopters to the aviation unit, replaced wooden nightsticks with collapsible batons, and replaced Mace tear gas with a more effective pepper spray.

To stop the armed robberies that increased 17.3 percent during the first nine months of 1995, he added four detectives to the armed robbery squad. He also has started other units and programs, including a 4,000-member neighborhood patrol watch, a computer that notifies residents of crime in their area and a unit that targets gun-related violence.

"He has always been recognized as a progressive leader of a progressive department," said Col. David B. Mitchell, state police superintendent. "He has found new ways to deal with old problems. His auto theft unit is police and community relations in its truest form."

But the Essex Precinct, where one officer has been charged with assaulting and kidnapping a United Parcel Service driver and another has been indicted on brutality and hate crimes charges, was a sore spot.

"We expanded the police academy from six months to eight months to give us time to better train them," Mr. Gambrill said. "If you don't prepare them, you end up paying for it with big problems a couple of years later."

Councilman Douglas B. Riley, a Towson Republican, said the department has been moving in the right direction. He said Chief Gambrill's reorganization, which put more officers in the precincts, was the thing to do if the county could not afford foot patrols.

"He was trained by the master and that's [former Chief] Neil Behan," said C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III, the county executive. "Then Mike Gambrill became the master."

But Chief Gambrill is quick to say he did not do it alone. He credits those who worked with him and for him to develop anti-crime programs.

Chief Gambrill began his career as a foot patrol officer in the Essex Precinct, which at the time had only four patrol cars.

"If I needed something, I would flag down a car," he said. "We had no radios to carry around with us then."

He applied for a police officer's job while working as a copy boy at the now-defunct News American, where he was responsible for listening to a police radio scanner and sending out photographers.

Journalism did not appeal to him, he said. He didn't want to continue as a copy boy or move up to a reporter's position.

"I instantly fell in love with police work," he said.

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