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Cornelius J. ‘Neil’ Behan, Baltimore County Police chief known nationally for community outreach and gun control advocacy, dies

Cornelius J. “Neil” Behan, who led the Baltimore County Police Department for 17 years and was known nationally for promoting community policing strategies and gun control, died Friday at his home in Towson. He was 97.

Chief Behan’s wife of more than 70 years, the former Patricia Papp, died Dec. 28. “I think my dad died of a broken heart,” said a daughter, Mary Behan Fields, of Olney, who said her father had also recently been under hospice care, and died a day after he laid his wife to rest.

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“Chief Behan was a pioneer in the law enforcement profession and created a foundation for community policing, gun control, and many other programs that have since been adopted throughout the country,” current Baltimore County Police Chief Melissa Hyatt said in a statement.

Robert J. Dubel was the popular superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools for 16 years until retiring in 1992.

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“Neil was an extremely friendly person who really believed in community relations. He could be extremely stern and disciplined, but after all, he was the police chief,” Dr. Dubel said with a laugh.

Cornelius Joseph Behan, son of Cornelius J. Behan, a New York Auction Co. fur grader and World War I veteran, and his wife, Josephine Olley Behan, a New York Public Library employee and homemaker, was born and raised in College Point, New York.

He was a 1942 graduate of the old St. Agnes Academic High School in College Point, and enlisted in the Army that year.

Chief Behan, who had attained the rank of sergeant, had served with the 45th Division, 157th Infantry Regiment, Company H, and saw action in North Africa, Italy, France and Germany. In 1945, he participated in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp in Upper Bavaria, where more than 31,000 Jews and other prisoners perished.

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His decorations included the Bronze Star, Combat Infantryman Badge and the Purple Heart.

“While I was under shell fire I organized and led two litter teams to rescue a lieutenant and his aide, who were badly wounded by exploding shells from the enemy, and we removed them from the artillery fire to a safer place,” he told family members. His bravery earned him the Bronze Star.

He managed to survive a bomb attack by a German fighter on a field hospital where he was being treated. The attack killed medics and the doctor.

“All I received was a scratch across the back of my neck,” he told family members. “There is no reason why I came through the war without serious injury or death. I have assumed that God saved me for a reason. I have spent my life trying to figure it out and prayed that I did the right thing to justify it.”

Cornelius J. "Neil" Behan, in a picture dated July 1977, resigned after 31 years with the New York Police Department to head Baltimore County's force.
Cornelius J. "Neil" Behan, in a picture dated July 1977, resigned after 31 years with the New York Police Department to head Baltimore County's force. (handout file photo/Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

After the war, Chief Behan returned to New York where he trained as a firefighter at the Delehanty Institute near Union Square. He took civil service tests for police and fire jobs, but placed higher on the police exam — 17th out of 30,000 applicants who took the test.

Chief Behan began his NYPD career in 1947 on a foot patrol in the 11th precinct in Bayside, Queens, and two years later, joined the Pickpocket and Confidence Squad.

“During his 16 years with that squad, which he eventually commanded as a captain in 1965, he developed an eye for the knavish tricks of con artists, Gypsies and pickpockets. He demonstrated his talent in appearances on the Jack Parr and Johnny Carson talk shows,” The Evening Sun observed in a 1977 article.

“I loved the intrigue, the chase, the outwitting the thieves,” he told the newspaper.

Chief Behan played a pivotal role in 1967 when Captain Frank Serpico, who was a detective in the department’s Bureau of Public Morals, approached him with the news that there was corruption among the plainclothes officers of the NYPD’s 7th Division and told the chief of the “sordid details of payoffs and corruption,” the article said.

Chief Behan passed on the information to his superiors, resulting in the formation of the Knapp Commission to investigate the incident. It later became a bestselling book and a 1973 film starring Al Pacino as Serpico that was directed by Sidney Lumet.

In 1971, he became head of the police training academy, and the next year, was named commander of 15 precincts in South Brooklyn. He became chief of personnel in 1974, a position he held for two years, until being promoted to chief of field services with 21,000 police personnel under his command.

After 31 years with the NYPD, he joined the Baltimore County police department in 1977. At the time, he was seen as a candidate to succeed New York’s police commissioner, but told The New York Times, “I have an opportunity to become chief of an agency, and you don’t get opportunities like that too often.”

He replaced former Chief James R. Gallen, who had left the department in disarray and with an overwhelming sense of low morale.

“His commands are given quietly. He is not flamboyant. In his Oxford gray business suit, Baltimore County’s nominee for chief of police, who is expected to take the job in September, could be a Chase Manhattan banker,” The Evening Sun said.

During his tenure as chief, he reorganized the department and modernized the 1,400-member department, and was seen as an innovator in crime prevention. His work earned him invitations to head police departments in major American cities, which he declined, preferring to stay in Baltimore County.

His work included establishing Community Oriented Police Enforcement units that became national models, seeking to better listen to residents, ease tensions and fears, and solve problems at the root of public safety concerns. And under Chief Behan, county officers were first equipped with bulletproof vests and with 9 mm semi-automatic handguns instead of revolvers, as more powerful and deadly firearms became more common on the street — a concern he spoke out about often.

Chief Behan was so vocal with concerns about the proliferation of powerful guns in the United States, he faced pointed criticism from the National Rifle Association.

As he lobbied against federal legislation that loosened restrictions on the sale of guns and ammunition in 1986, the NRA sent mailings to thousands of Maryland residents calling him “a New York City import” who “is hard at work undermining your gun rights,” The Washington Post reported.

But Chief Behan held his ground, telling the Post: “Twenty thousand people die every year from handguns. We don’t need any legislation that makes guns more available.”

Over the years, he was recruited to apply to become the top cop in cities around the country, including Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, where search committees twice recommended him for commissioner, according to Sun archives. He was also encouraged to take roles as Maryland State Police superintendent and state secretary of corrections, but remained in Baltimore County.

“He was as well respected as any police chief in the country during his tenure in Baltimore County,” said Donald P. Hutchinson, who served as county executive from 1978 to 1986.

When Chief Behan retired in 1993, then-County Executive Roger B. Hayden told The Sun the chief transformed the department “into not only a strong crime-fighting organization but also an excellent crime-preventing organization.”

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In his retirement, he continued to promote gun control and better policing, serving as a liaison to Congress and state legislatures for the Major Cities Chiefs Association, and as an executive in residence at the Johns Hopkins University.

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He also pursued his love of golfing.

A Mass of Christian Burial will be offered at 11 a.m. Jan. 28 at Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church, Baltimore and Ware avenues, Towson, where he was a longtime communicant.

In addition to his daughter, he is survived by a son, Neil Behan of Laurel; three other daughters, Carol Tucci and Kathleen Brunner, both of Columbia, and Elaine Behan of Bayside, New York; 12 grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.

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