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First Shift; He's 23, fresh out of the academy, full of ideas about being a cop. Tonight, he'll find out what the job is really like.; COVER STORY

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A voice echoes off the marble walls of the cavernous War Memorial Building. On this hallowed ground, where the heroes of battle are memorialized, a man in uniform is speaking of a high calling, a mission filled with duty, honor and sacred trust. Of a war being fought on the streets of Baltimore.

Bryan Ruth stands at rapt attention in his dark blue uniform, his arms stiff at his side. His face is expressionless as he listens to an officer addressing graduates of the city's police academy. Like his 46 classmates, Ruth is a new soldier headed for the front.

On this cold Nov. 5, and in the days to come, Ruth and his fellow rookies will hear from veteran officers who joined the force a decade before some of these new cops were born. They will hear from the police commissioner that "the quality of life on the streets is still rotten," despite a police force 3,000 strong. And they will hear this warning: "You are going to be under scrutiny every single day."

Their duty, they'll be told, is to restore order in a city addicted to heroin and overtaken by violence. Yet the toughest challenge may be gaining the trust of the citizens they are sworn to protect.

They are hitting the street during turbulent times.

The controversial shooting of a black man by a white officer on the city's east side has sparked a half-dozen investigations. Some witnesses contend the man was "executed," shot in the back of the head after pleading for his life. Police say he was killed by an officer protecting his partner during a struggle for a gun.

Just three days ago, a housing authority police officer shot and killed a teen-age robbery suspect, heightening the tensions created by the earlier shooting.

Many in the police brotherhood feel betrayed by the system and by public opinion: considered heroes when they die in the line of duty, labeled murderers when they use their guns to protect themselves.

After the first killing, angry residents protested by carrying a casket with "Baltimore Police Department" scrawled on the side. Celebrity lawyer Johnnie Cochran flew into town and denounced the cops as thugs. And now drug dealers, emboldened by the turmoil, lift their shirts to show off guns tucked in waistbands. Some officers say they ignore the brazen challenges to avoid confrontations that might end in gunfire.

The controversial shooting occurred while these recruits were still in training. But its repercussions will shadow their every move as new officers. At the graduation ceremony, the proud parents of Bryan Ruth have heard about the shooting, but they don't fully comprehend its complexities: that it occurred amid the rhetoric of a mayoral campaign in which a white candidate, now the mayor-elect, called for "zero-tolerance" policing. It is a policy some fear will sanction police brutality, particularly against African-Americans.

Rick and Georgena Ruth can't help but notice that half of their son's graduating class is black. Why would Baltimore police, struggling to make its force reflect the city's majority black population, "pick a white kid from the country?" his father wonders.

Bryan Ruth is a 23-year-old weightlifter from rural Pennsylvania, the son of two university professors. One of just 10 recruits in his class with a four-year college education, he holds a degree in criminal justice.

Yet for all his seriousness, Ruth was drawn to the job by the fast-action, real-life drama of the television show "Cops," which highlights the macho image of the men in blue.

He's a physically imposing man, with a sculpted body and a shaved head that make him appear taller than 6-feet-1. Yet he is a quiet guy who greets questions with long, thoughtful silences before answering. For him, being a police officer means "caring for people." He hopes to help children. He has bought Winnie the Pooh Band-Aids to carry in his patrol car.

At the academy, Ruth learned to quickly load 17 bullets into his 9 mm Glock pistol, to swing his baton to disable a man, to deftly maneuver a boxy Ford Crown Victoria. As part of his training, he also visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington to see how a police force became the tool of a murderous regime.

The young man who grew up in a raised rancher on a cul-de-sac in Shippensburg, Pa., the front door left unlocked during the day, will be paid $28,404 a year to strap on a gun, climb into a patrol car and protect the citizens of Baltimore.

His teachers think he will make it. His classmates voted him the coveted Commissioner's Award for Excellence. When they had to partner up, everyone wanted to be with Ruth, the quiet man with the 18-inch biceps who studies physics and can't wait to solve the city's problems.

"They are so idealistic," says one of Ruth's instructors, Lt. M. Susan Young. "It's almost a shame when reality sets in."

For Bryan Ruth, that will come soon: his first night on the job.

Six days after graduation, on a damp Thursday afternoon at precisely 4:26, a police car pulls up to the Walbrook Library, responding to a 911 call about a fight. Officer Anthony Byrd climbs out of the driver's seat. Officer Bryan Ruth follows from the passenger side.

It is Veterans Day, Ruth's first day on the job. Just an hour ago, he stood in a dim room of the Southwestern District station house, where a sergeant handed out assignments. His first roll call.

Now, his first chance to help someone.

He sputters two numbers into the radio microphone clipped to his shirt collar: "12, 23." The first number corresponds to his car and his patrol area in the Mount Holly neighborhood; the second is a code that lets the dispatcher know he has arrived at the library on West North Avenue.

The dispatcher chirps back, "10-4." Ruth has passed his first small test -- using the police radio and its complicated codes.

When the policemen walk through the automatic doors and into the library, a bewildered clerk asks why they are there. "We got a call for a fight," Byrd says.

There is no sign of a disturbance. Staff members are preparing for children's reading hour. The clerk shrugs her shoulders, leaving Byrd puzzled. Finally, another woman looks up from her paperwork and volunteers that she made the call.

Derek Fauntleroy, the security guard, leads the officers back to the entrance. He broke up the fight, he says, and "chased them out of here."

His explanation satisfies Byrd. But to get this simple answer, the officers have had to talk to three people. The feelings of hostility here are subtle. The officers' help had been wanted, but their presence now clearly is not.

Byrd is unfazed by their reception and amused by another small detail. Though he asked all the questions, Fauntleroy talked only to the towering Ruth. Everyone seems to gravitate to the big guy.

Byrd is from Baltimore, an African-American officer who, at 24, is only a year older than Ruth. But he has four years on the force. Of the city's 3,188 officers, 800 have less than five years experience. Already, Byrd has been designated a field training officer, one good enough to make sure new cops are ready for the rigors of street patrol.

For the next several weeks, he will be Ruth's guide to the Southwestern District, where 14 rookies have been sent to bolster a sagging force. Even with the new recruits, the district -- 10.3 square miles, 35 neighborhoods and 84,000 residents -- is 20 officers short. Just 217 patrol a sprawling district that stretches from Caton Avenue up through Leakin Park to Gwynns Falls Parkway.

Ruth is patrolling Post 812, the northwestern corner of the district. It is home to Tiffany Square, a plot of land named for a 6-year-old girl gunned down by a stray bullet in 1991. He readily admits he is nervous. He stayed up late trying to memorize street names and landmarks, to get his bearings. "Over the weekend, I worried myself into a calm," Ruth says with a smile. Not quite, it seems. This morning, he forgot to pack a sandwich. And when the officers stop for food at a convenience store later, he will discover his wallet is empty. He'll hit the ATM to buy a Gatorade and an oatmeal cookie.

Police commanders want rookies like Ruth to be nervous. Being cocky, they have warned, only leads to trouble. "You are held to a higher standard," the district commander, Maj. John L. Bergbower, told his new charges at an orientation session. He underscored one request: Treat everyone the way you would expect your "parents, grand- parents, family and friends" to be treated. "People will respect you and the job you do."

Those simple words are hard to reconcile on the street. Ruth has learned that even those who call for help don't always want to be helpful. He leaves the library unsure of what to think of his first encounter with the citizenry.

"I'm a little surprised that people are so apprehensive about us," he says.

"Up here," Byrd answers, swinging the patrol car onto North Avenue, "people don't like the police much. Nobody says thank you."

Bryan Ruth spent three years as a wide receiver for his high school football team, yet made only one catch. He was so surprised when the ball fell into his arms, he forgot to run.

Stopping to think cost him a touchdown.

Ruth's mind works that way, methodically and deliberately, like that of an engineer. He once wanted to be a draftsman. He studies string theory and reads Albert Einstein. But he also appreciates adventure and wants to help people. He became an early fan of the television show "Cops." He even got his math professor father to watch.

By the time the young man entered Shippensburg University, he knew what he would study. Being locked away in a lab or library frightened him. "I have to be outside," he says. He chose criminal justice.

Police internships took him to the boardwalks at Dewey Beach, Del., and Wildwood, N.J., where he met other young men with similar ambitions. At Wildwood, he got to carry a 9 mm Smith & Wesson, his first firearm.

But he never had a chance to test his reflexes. The most action he had was stopping four people for drinking in public.

Being a cop, he discovered, wasn't at all the way it was on TV -- "it's a lot of waiting around for 30 seconds of action."

During his early college days, he partied more than he went to class. Then, midway through school, he met Amanda Johnson, a talkative New Jersey native who planned to be a nurse and took her studies seriously. Bryan's parents credit Amanda, who hopes to move to Baltimore and find a nursing job, with getting their son on track.

After graduation, he applied to several police departments. He failed the entrance test in Carlisle, Pa., decided against working in nearby Chambersburg, Pa., and got close to being hired in Allentown. Baltimore was the first to offer a job.

He was chosen from among 900 men and women who applied nearly a year ago. Fifty-one applicants survived a battery of tests and psychological profiling and made it to the six-month academy. Of the 47 who graduated, all but 10 are from Maryland. Most are in their mid- to late 20s, though one is 48.

Before Ruth arrived in Baltimore last spring, he had been to the city just twice; as a child, he visited the Inner Harbor with his mother. Getting to the downtown training academy from his new apartment in Reisterstown was another formative experience.

"I was afraid to come to the headquarters building the first time," he admits. "I was afraid I would get shot or robbed."

Ruth grew up in a community of 6,700 where churches outnumber bars seven to one. Crime in surrounding Cumberland County, an area of 208,000 people, is minuscule. During the last reporting year, 1997, there were no murders recorded, with 10 rapes, six robberies and 42 assaults. In the first nine months of this year in the Southwestern District alone, 18 slayings occurred, along with 26 rapes, 527 robberies and 510 assaults. Baltimore's homicide rate is the fourth highest in the nation.

Ruth says his parents instilled a worldly view in what can be an uptight town. The university adds some diversity to rural Cumberland County, where 96 percent of the population is white. But he still has friends who can't believe he has moved to a place like Baltimore.

"This is no different than any other place," Ruth answers. "There are more people, so there is more crime."

Ruth likes to show off a picture of himself shaking hands with Arnold Schwarzenegger. He's the kind of guy who will fend for himself in a fight but also plans on carrying a trunk full of stuffed animals to hand out to children he encounters.

Bryan's father remembers getting caught up in the excitement of "Cops" with his son and smiles at how the young man who once wore his hair in 5-inch spikes has matured. He hopes Bryan brings his small-town values to big-city Baltimore.

But Rick Ruth can't help but recall that day on the high school football field, when his son caught the ball but forgot to run. He knows that being a cop often means acting on instinct.

"Hopefully," the father says now, "he won't hesitate."

Two young men in the street at Longwood and Clifton attract Byrd's attention. They're a little overdressed for this mild evening, and they're in the middle of the intersection, hanging out.

It's a troublesome corner with a shuttered mom-and-pop store and abandoned rowhouses, a wasteland of drugs and despair for residents, a hot spot for police.

Byrd pulls the cruiser over, jumps out and grabs the thinner of the two men. "Interlock your fingers," he orders, then places the man's hands behind his head. Keeping a close eye on his partner, Ruth takes charge of a heavyset youth as they search for drugs and guns.

"Why are you wearing a sweat shirt?" Byrd asks.

"It's cold out here," the young man responds. "It's not cold now, but it will be."

With his left hand, Byrd keeps a firm grip on the suspect's hands. With his right, he pats down the guy's clothing, from hood to socks, looking for anything sharp, lumpy or simply out of place. Meanwhile, to keep the suspect off balance, he gets in close and uses his foot to push the man's legs apart.

It's nothing personal, he tells the young man. Just business. By the end of the search, the man is laughing.

Ruth's hold on his prisoner is looser. He keeps the man at arm's length, allowing him to pull his hands off the top of his head. Ruth puts his right hand gently on top of the man's hands and grabs the back of his jacket. While Byrd chats up his suspect, Ruth fires terse questions that sound more like demands. "Name? You live where?"

Byrd doesn't guide Ruth through the search, nor does he critique it afterward. But the rookie realizes he hasn't done the sort of textbook job he performed so often at the academy.

"You're new," a lieutenant had told the recruits during orientation. "But I'm not going to tell anyone. Your actions will give you away."

Byrd and Ruth find no drugs or weapons. They release the two men, who head off in opposite directions.

"Everything went the way it should go," Ruth says, "but right now, I'm nervous. I hope someday I'll be so relaxed that I can talk to people while I search them."

The brief encounter was the sort of routine stop that's performed hundreds of times each day by officers across the city. Usually, it garners no more than intelligence -- the names are fed into a database, and if there is a future crime nearby, detectives will know who hangs on the corner.

But for Ruth, the stop feels anything but routine. He has just detained his first city resident, deprived a citizen of his liberty, if only briefly. "It felt weird," he'll say later. "I wondered what it would be like to be stopped as I stood on a street."

The racial divide -- that Ruth is white and the young man he stopped is black -- doesn't enter his mind at the time. He is more concerned about the proper way to conduct a search than the chance that someone might interpret his actions as harassment.

Evening has turned into night, and the police radio is silent. Byrd and Ruth join a group of officers at Ellamont Street and plan an impromptu surveillance mission against some local drug dealers.

Ruth, Byrd and two others work their way through back alleys, past barking dogs penned in back yards. They climb over a broken chain-link fence and crouch in a passageway, careful not to rustle fallen leaves or step on a discarded potato-chip bag. Squatting like umpires behind home plate, they sneak halfway up the alley and listen to the noise from the street. On the other side, two officers in a vacant lot lie face down in overgrown grass, hoping to catch a glimpse of a drug deal going down.

"You got to be patient," Byrd whispers.

But suddenly, a man peeks around the corner and spots them, prompting Ruth and the others to mount a quick, noisy retreat over the fence and back to Ellamont.

There is little time to gripe. An urgent voice crackles over the radio: A robbery is in progress up the street, two men are shooting at each other inside a house. The officers scramble for their patrol cars.

Strobe lights flash and sirens wail as the cruisers race away. At the house, Ruth trails Byrd to the back yard. Neither says a word. Ruth follows his partner's lead and puts his hand on the butt of his holstered gun. Other officers carefully make their way to the front door and knock.

A man answers. No one else is home, he says. There's been no argument, no shots have been fired. It's a false call.

Byrd has seen this before. Police swarming around drug dealers' turf hurts their business. To clear the cops away, they report a false incident someplace else.

"I guess they wanted us out of there," Byrd tells Ruth, shaking his head.

Back on patrol again, the rookie officer is faced with more basic frustrations, such as learning to use the police radio. Calls come quick, and in code. Keeping track of colleagues and what they are doing without missing your own number takes concentration.

Ruth presses a button to talk, but forgets to wait for a chirp that signals the air is clear. His report to dispatchers that he has handled a call never gets through to the communications center at police headquarters.

"Missed it," he says, trying once more. But he is too late. Another officer is already on the air.

Ruth knows his codes well, but he's never practiced them under pressure. At orientation just three days ago, a lieutenant called on Ruth to help a confused classmate. But now, sitting in the front seat of a squad car, balancing a clipboard, trying to figure out the proper way to code a call, trying to reach a dispatcher and missing another call for two men selling drugs, Ruth is rattled.

"Can you take over the radio?" he asks Byrd. "I feel lost right now."

Ruth will end his first day as a patrol cop by spending four hours booking a 14-year-old boy. When the kid wouldn't walk away from a fight, a pat-down revealed a 6-inch knife with brass-knuckles for a handle.

One brief night on the street has been eye-opening for the new officer. He encountered troubled teen-agers. People who seek help and then don't want it. Cat-and-mouse games with drug dealers. A woman giving birth on North Avenue who refused an ambulance because she doesn't have insurance.

Tomorrow, his partner will hand him the keys to the cruiser. He will travel the wrong way up a one-way street, by mistake. He will push the cruiser fast through intersections and down narrow alleys. He will almost run a stop sign and nearly collide with another police car.

The city's racial tension in the wake of the controversial police shooting on the east side didn't surface on Ruth's watch in the vir- tually all-black neighborhoods he patrolled. If anything, issues of race took a back seat to the brotherhood.

"There were four or five of us officers standing around after a call," he says. "They were all black. The neighborhood was all black. I was the only white person. But I felt like one of them."

In 10 short weeks, Ruth will be on his own. That's when his initial training with Byrd and other officers will end. If he passes, he'll still be on probation for a year. He has a lot to learn, but he is eager. "I can't wait to get out on my own so I can start talking to people."

Despite the frustrations of his first day, the rookie cop's shift doesn't end without a glimpse of the rewards the job can bring.

When Ruth and Byrd arrive at Robert Brown Jr.'s apartment on Garrison Boulevard, the 39-year-old Army veteran has had it. He's fed up with life in the city. His front door has been pried off its hinges. His Technics stereo is missing from its living room perch, his compact discs are strewn about, his new Gateway computer is gone.

Just a month earlier, while he changed the oil in his car, someone broke in and stole his big-screen television. "You get tired," says Brown. "I could move out to Columbia, but crime will follow you wherever you go."

While Brown grumbles, Ruth is busy trying to fill out his first police report. He brought along a blank form so he wouldn't miss a question while detailing the crime in his pocket-sized notebook. He sits at Brown's dining-room table, Byrd hovering over his shoulder, asks how to spell "Technics" and copies down the serial numbers of the stolen equipment.

Later, the officers knock on neighbors' doors. None have heard or seen anything suspicious, but all have their own tales to tell about being robbed. One lady invites them inside for coffee.

They close up their notebooks and politely decline. But before they can escape down the hallway, she insists on giving them something. "You all be safe out there now," the woman calls after them.

The rookie and the veteran disappear down the stairs -- clutching small tokens of one citizen's gratitude.

Root beer lollipops.

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