New Baltimore County Police Chief Robert O. McCullough said he will prioritize community policing, crime prevention, and hiring and retaining more officers, along with increasing police training and making schools safer.
McCullough, who was sworn in Tuesday as the county’s 16th police chief, said in an interview that he will target the department’s hundreds of vacancies, establish a position to track reform implementation and work to rebuild trust with the communities of color.
He was sworn in at the Randallstown Community Center, a key location for the retired Baltimore County colonel and the first Black leader of the agency.
“In terms of historic context, it’s important for it to happen in the community where I live,” he said Monday.
A large number of the county’s Black residents live along the county’s Liberty Road corridor, an area where the Randallstown NAACP recently asked the county to invest in revitalization.
McCullough has lived in Randallstown for more than three decades. Born in West Baltimore, he moved to Turner Station, a historically Black neighborhood south of Dundalk, when he was in the sixth grade. He graduated high school from Baltimore City College and holds a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in management from the Johns Hopkins University.
One of his first challenges as chief is filling the department’s 212 vacancies among its 1,974 sworn positions, along with about 150 vacancies in non-sworn positions.
“I‘m going to start tomorrow, really taking a close look at where the vacancies are,” McCullough said Tuesday.
He said he will bolster hiring processes, including assigning background investigators to hire recruits before other agencies and showing up at physical tests to cheer on candidates.
As head of the Baltimore County Police employment section in 2015, McCullough led a diversity recruitment drive in 2015 that aimed to create a department reflecting the county’s racial composition. Back then, Black sworn members made up less than 13% of the force. Today, about 16.5% of the department’s sworn members are Black.
In an interview Tuesday, McCullough called those efforts successful, but said the department saw a loss of diversity and personnel more broadly in the two years since he retired.
“There were some losses as a result of some morale issues. And just people being generally unhappy with some of their working conditions,” he said. “The county executive has done some tremendous things to help us to recruit and to improve our working conditions.”
Last May, members of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 4, which represents Baltimore County officers, issued a vote of “no confidence” in the last permanent police chief, Melissa Hyatt. McCullough, who joined the agency when he was 18 before ascending the ranks, said he is not concerned about clashing with the rank-and-file.
“I grew up in this organization,” he said. “Like any organization, we have ups and downs, we have growth, we have decline, we have renewal. I like to believe that we’re in a stage of renewal right now.”
The Blue Guardians, a group that represents officers of color in the department, has said Baltimore County should improve its hiring and promotion practices to lift up more Black leaders within the department. Among the 34 sworn members of the executive corps, the department’s upper ranks, there are 30 white men, two white women and two Black men.
“We’re going to be balanced, we’re going to be fair, but nobody recognizes the need for diversity more than I do,” McCullough said.
Relationships between the police department and the county’s Black residents historically have been fraught. Black people were the targets of 71% of county use-of-force incidents in the first half of 2022, according to a police department dashboard, despite making up close to one-third of the county’s population.
“We know from looking at the numbers that there’s been past problems,” McCullough said.
He said it was equally important to address the community’s perception of inequality by having “candid conversations” about bias with officers and identifying strategies to avoid future problems.
McCullough also said he will value transparency as chief. Last year, in response to reform legislation that provided the public with access to previously shielded police disciplinary files, the department implemented a policy letting officers review requested files and challenge their release. McCullough said Monday he would review the policy, which was put in place after his retirement the previous year.
“One of the things I recognize when it comes to 21st century policing, and any reform effort is, it’s easy to talk about it. But we don’t always accurately track everything,” McCollough said Tuesday.
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He said he will appoint interim Chief Dennis Delp’s chief of staff, Meg Ferguson, as the department’s director of policy and oversight. Ferguson will be tasked with ensuring the agency is implementing best practices and training personnel on topics like use of force.
During his remarks at Tuesday’s swearing-in, McCullough shed a few tears after joking that he promised his family he wouldn’t cry.
“Law enforcement officers across the country and here in Baltimore County are at an important crossroads. Officers are faced with changing laws, evolving threats and perceptions of what policing is and what it should be,” McCullough said. “My vision for our police department is a proactive, community-oriented agency that is focused on preventing and combating crime and its negative effects.”
McCullough’s wife Alicia and retired Col. Johnny Whitehead, the first Black colonel in the Baltimore County Police Department and McCullough’s cousin, pinned the chief’s new badge on him Tuesday. Whitehead also had fixed McCullough’s badge on his chest when he made colonel, McCullough said.
Olszewski said after McCullough’s confirmation Monday that McCullough already had “hit the ground running,” by meeting with community groups and the rank-and-file.
“Chief Robert McCullough is the respected, dedicated and passionate leader Baltimore County deserves and that we need to lead this department into the future,” Olszewski said at Tuesday’s ceremony. “He will reaffirm the principles of equity and inclusivity and make Baltimore County stronger every day.”