Well-worn county beat has new face

The Baltimore Sun

Long before they met, Martin Johnson and Jason Hall crossed paths professionally.

Johnson's first week as Howard County's liquor inspector was Hall's first week as a police cadet.

That was nearly 13 years ago.

At the end of this month, long after they worked together for the first time, Hall is scheduled to succeed Johnson, who is retiring from Howard County Police Department after a 25-year career.

Johnson, 48, will become an instructor for the Academy of Counterterrorist Education, a division of the Department of Homeland Security. He also plans to start consulting with retail businesses about alcohol sales and employee screening.

Known for being a meticulous administrator whose "Mister Rogers" demeanor belies his reputation as a dogged investigator, Johnson's background as a plainclothes detective served him well.

Asked to compare the job of liquor inspector to previous positions, he said, "You still get to be a police officer, you still get to make arrests, you still get to find and prevent criminal activity from occurring. I also get to work with members of government and people in the business community, 99.9 percent of whom are very nice, responsible people."

The alcohol sales business in the county has grown during Johnson's career, from an estimated 190 establishments with liquor licenses to the current total of 260.

"It was a very limited inspection service," Johnson said of the job he inherited from William Lloyd, who held the position for only 10 months before moving to the FBI.

"I tried to take a start-to-finish approach to prevent problems and then detect them as well. One of the buzz phrases I've used is 'We'd rather prevent it than detect it after it occurs.' "

Johnson's duties went far beyond late-night barhopping in pursuit of those needing to be educated. He conducted background checks on potential licensees, conducted investigations (many of them covert) of licensed establishments and followed up on complaints from the public about potential violators.

State Sen. James N. Robey, the former two-term county executive who as Howard's police chief from 1991 through 1998 appointed Johnson, said that the county's longest-tenured liquor inspector "redefined" the position.

"He did it in a way that he had everyone's respect," Robey said last week. "I've heard stories in other jurisdictions of liquor inspectors who were too approachable. He has a great personality, but he's a no-nonsense kind of guy."

Given Johnson's accomplishments, which include arresting a bank robber while off-duty in Baltimore, Hall might feel like a quarterback whose predecessor led his team to the Super Bowl.

"I'd like to think I'm Steve Young, not Ryan Leaf," Hall, 34, said with a laugh, referring to the former San Francisco 49ers star who followed Joe Montana rather than a former No. 1 pick considered among the NFL's all-time busts.

Johnson quickly gained a reputation for working long - and late - hours, getting to know nearly every one of those with liquor licensees on a first-name basis and uncovering where alcohol was being served illegally.

Hall, whose wife also is a county police officer, has an understanding of what the new job entails.

"[Johnson] has an encyclopedic knowledge of every liquor store owner and bar owner, and package store owner in Howard County," Hall said. "It's just impressive, the amount of knowledge he has on this specific topic."

Hall has been on the force since 1998, mostly on night-shift patrol. But he has spent summers working alcohol enforcement details, usually roaming the parking lots at Merriweather Post Pavilion looking for underage drinkers. He later worked in the plainclothes section in various problem areas throughout the county.

"He has created a standard for the job that wasn't there before, and I know I have to live up to that," Hall said of Johnson. Asked what he is looking forward to in his new position, Hall said, "The opportunity to do what I like. I really enjoy enforcing these laws.

"I've been the police officer who's out on the street running around and chasing people at 2 in the morning. This gives me a chance to have a more normal lifestyle with my family and still investigate things."

Though Johnson joked that "Jason is adjusting to daylight" rather than the 6 p.m.-to-6 a.m. shifts he worked for years, Johnson spent at least a week working until the wee hours.

"If you're not out there, you can't catch them at 3 or 4 in the morning," Johnson said.

And what advice does he give his successor?

"Try to weed out some of the bad eggs who can try to come into the county," Johnson said. "If we can prevent that egg from hatching, we don't have to worry about it."

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