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Police chief's quiet approach; Livesay's style similar to Robey's, colleague says


Shortly after joining the Howard County Police Department in 1972, a young officer met a promising corporal, James N. Robey, beginning a relationship that molded their careers -- and the police force.

That officer was Wayne Livesay, who grew up poor, rolling sod during summers and laboring as a janitor while a student at Glenelg High School. After graduating and being laid off from a factory job, he joined the Howard County force, where he excelled, rising quickly through the ranks -- always on the heels of Robey, who became his mentor.

Livesay, who was sworn in as chief last month, shares more than friendship with Robey. Like Robey, the new county executive, Livesay does not rally the troops with fiery speeches but listens contemplatively, weighing options before making decisions.

"They approach problems in very much the same way," said Maj. Jeff Spaulding, the deputy chief. "They're pretty much direct, head-on, gather the information."

Livesay offers modest proposals for the future. And though the 47-year-old chief faces several challenges, including retaining officers while launching a community-oriented policing program, most residential leaders hope he maintains the status quo while pushing Robey and the County Council to hire more officers.

"He should keep on doing what he's doing," said Cecilia Januszkiewicz, the Columbia Council representative from Long Reach village. "I do think they should get more officers, though."

To become chief of the 313-member department, Livesay had to overcame adversity.

He grew up in western Howard, the eldest of five brothers. His father worked at a flour mill and was a custodian, his mother was a nurse's aide. The family didn't have indoor plumbing until 1963.

At 13, Livesay lied to obtain a work permit and later swept halls as a full-time janitor while a student at Glenelg, working from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. daily.

Two weeks after graduating in 1969, he married his high school sweetheart, Brenda.

After being laid off from his "dream job" of stamping metal sheets, Livesay sold vacuum cleaners door-to-door to support his wife and two young sons.

Then, at the suggestion of a former co-worker, he joined the Howard County police.

"I can't say I took the job to help people," he said. "It was the security."

At the police academy, Livesay exhibited a trait familiar to his friends: determination. He broke a finger but instead of reporting the injury he hid it, afraid his supervisors would kick him out.

He remembers patrolling U.S. 1 before joining Howard County's first tactical squad, with Robey as his supervisor.

"He's the kind of guy anyone would want working with him," said Robey, who oversaw a squad that responded to such intense situations as armed suspects barricaded in homes.

Team members were close. At first, without funding for training, Livesay and the other four squad members ran, played basketball and lifted weights at Mount Hebron High School in their spare time -- usually after their shifts ended at midnight.

By 1975, the department agreed to fund two hours of training a day.

The squad members spent most of their time training together, working details late at night and socializing.

Livesay could always be trusted to watch your back and to stay calm under pressure.

"He had a really cool demeanor, a way of dealing with people," said Jack Burke, a retired captain. "Not everybody can do it. Wayne was always cool."

Back in his tactical days, Livesay handled more than tough work situations -- he listened to friends' problems and gave them advice.

"He's a guy who sits back and looks and listens," said Charles M. Ellenberger, a retired officer and member of that first team. "Wayne you could always talk to because he never seemed to have any problems of his own."

Livesay demonstrates those same traits today.

He still works hard, awakening every morning at 5 to run, working by 6: 30 a.m. and often laboring 12 hours before attending a community meeting where he's peppered with heated questions.

One night last month in Oakland Mills, 50 people fired salvos of questions at Livesay. Why wasn't there a police officer at my bus stop yesterday morning? Why aren't there enough officers patrolling the village center?

Livesay answered calmly yet made no promises.

Today, high-ranking officers say they feel comfortable walking into his office, asking for help and then getting an answer. Sometimes, after being criticized or punished, they don't feel bad when they walk out of his office.

"When you're in his office for a less-than-desired reason, you feel like you're getting chewed [out] in a decent way," a high-ranking officer said.

Few would criticize Livesay on the record, but some complained he could be inflexible at times -- at odds with what many described as his open-minded nature.

"He can be very stubborn or very strong-headed on programs or ideas," said Pfc. Dan Besseck, the union vice president. "Sometimes he won't bend on an issue, depending on what type of issue you're dealing with. I can't think of any other weaknesses."

Livesay makes decisions more quickly than Robey, who could mull ideas for extended lengths of time, police officials say. And while that works against him at times -- officers sometimes find his decisions arbitrary -- some say Livesay often makes the right decision.

"The one criticism you're going to find is that he can be quite stubborn," one high-ranking officer said. "But he realizes that. You'd be surprised how often he is right."

Some say Livesay's leadership style stems from his education, which includes a bachelor's degree in technology management from the University of Maryland and a master's in applied behavioral science from the Johns Hopkins University -- both achieved while working full time as an officer and commander.

"Nobody in my family ever got a college education," said Livesay, who hopes to raise the department's educational standards by offering incentives to those who earn college degrees.

Today, officers must have high school diplomas.

Livesay, after training extra hours and spending nights on stakeouts without overtime pay, expects the same level of dedication and professionalism from his officers. His views and leadership were tested early in handling a political stunt involving police union officials and Republican Councilman Dennis R. Schrader, who lost to Robey in the county executive's race.

Four union officials, all off duty, walked into the County Council offices Nov. 4, the day after the election, and delivered Schrader an angry letter, cardboard box and packing tape to help him leave.

One night, Livesay and his two top commanders sat around a conference table and debated the case. Maj. Mark L. Paterni thought the men had acted inappropriately and deserved to be punished. Spaulding said they were within their rights.

Livesay listened. A month later, he issued his decision: The men were dealt a punishment that Livesay and union officials would not disclose.

"Right off the bat, and that didn't make it easy," Livesay said. "I wanted to assure the public that we'd treat them fairly. I don't care if it's Dennis Schrader or anyone else. At the same time, I have to respect First Amendment issues. That's the rock and the hard place.

"When you're a police officer, you can't do those things," he added. "I will hold them to a higher standard."

Besseckparticipated in the prank but would not comment on the specifics of his punishment, saying: "He did what he had to do. He gave the punishment that was most appropriate under the circumstances."

After working on the tactical team, Livesay was promoted to sergeant and found his way into supervising the property crime section -- without experience as a detective.

"He could recognize situations and take appropriate action," Burke said. "Property crimes are the toughest to solve. You need bulldog determination. He always did."

Soon, he was patrolling the county again, this time as the first midnight shift watch commander. "It was certainly trying on life, in terms of sleeping and family," Livesay said.

In 1993, he was promoted to captain and headed the department's administrative side before becoming a major and deputy chief two years later.

He was appointed acting police chief a year ago and has slowly come to grips with his new responsibilities. Some officers complained they didn't see enough of him during the last year -- a criticism Livesay says he understands.

"I haven't been as accessible to my officers as I'd like," he said. "I try. I have to do better, attend more roll calls, ride with officers."

While looking out for his troops, Livesay also must balance the needs of a demanding public.

"I'm out almost every night of the week" at community meetings, he said. "I never realized the demands from the public and the officers, more so the public. It's more than I expected."

In the next few months, he will unveil a five-year community policing plan for a force already heavily involved in that practice.

He will push for better pay and benefits to retain officers, who have been leaving for other departments in droves.

Much of that give and take will be with his former and current boss, Robey, who knows how to run a police department.

"He came in one day," Robey recalled, "and said, 'No sense trying to BS you here. Here are the facts. I know you'll see through any smoke I try to throw up.' "

Despite being promised free reign by Robey, Livesay is still sorting out his new job while working for a man who held his position for seven years.

"I always called him chief, never called him Jim," Livesay said. "I'm kind of torn. Sometimes I call him Jim, sometimes I call him executive.

"Once in a while, I still slip and call him chief."

Pub Date: 1/24/99

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