County police department celebrates 75th anniversary
Jul. 2, 1997

July 2, 1997

Cattle rustling, bootlegging and stealing poultry were among the most common crimes when Montgomery County hired its first police chief and five officers in July 1922.

So widespread was the theft of chickens and turkeys that some residents employed a homespun form of crime prevention by cutting off a specific claw on their birds to identify them.

"Officers knew who all the chicken thieves were," said one historical account of the era put together by the police department, "and upon getting a report of missing Rhode Island Reds, or some other breed, would head straight for the thieves' hideaway to try to catch them 'red handed' before the birds got to the frying pan."

That sort of grass-roots style of policing -- where officers are attuned to what makes a specific community tick -- is something that current Montomery County Police Chief Carol Mehrling wants to bring back.

"Back then if there was a crime you could bet 'Jimmy Jones' had something to do with it, and if he didn't, he would know someone who did," Mehrling said, lamenting the passing of seemingly more simplistic days of crime-fighting. "Today everything moves so fast, the issues are much more complicated and there is so much more violence."

Mehrling said the department, now with more than 960 full-time officers, realizes that the best way to fight crime is through interacting with the community.

"We are no longer in denial. We accept now that we can't do the job alone without the public," Mehrling said this week in an interview looking at the past, present and future of the police department, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year.

Mehrling, who ensured herself a place in the department's history as its 14th chief and first woman to hold the appointed post, hopes her legacy will be upgrading the department's technology and improving relations between police and community.

Building that legacy could get its first real test in the coming weeks as the department restructures the beats and boundaries at each of its five district police stations.

The restructuring, to be announced next week, will put an emphasis on assigning officers to specific areas for longer stretches of time, thereby establishing closer ties between officers and the community.

"The officers will have ownership of their beats," Mehrling said. "And when it's yours, it's more competitive for the officer to want to make that beat the best there is."

The restructuring will be yet another chapter in the police department's storied history, which began with the Maryland Legislature directing Montgomery County commissioners in April 1922 to hire six constables who would have law enforcement powers throughout the county. Until then, constables were assigned to election districts beyond which they had no authority.

The chief was paid $1,800 a year (the chief now gets $112,564) while the officers got $1,500. Each officer was assigned a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and received $300 a year to defray costs for equipment, uniforms and maintaining the cycle.

For the first few years, the officers had no office and would meet at 2 p.m. each day on the steps of the Red Brick Courthouse in Rockville.

"The only training we got was how to ride a motorcycle, nothing on the law or anything," retired police Capt. LeRoy Snyder, who joined the department in 1924, recalled in a 1985 interview when he was 80.

Snyder's recollections were included in a book "A Worthy Innovation: A History of the Montgomery County Police," co-written by former police chief Donald E. Brooks.

The county's population in the early 1920s was just 35,000 (it's now more than 800,000). Much of the county was farmland, which accounted for all the thefts of livestock. It also was the Prohibition era, when bootlegging and moonshine still factored routinely on an officer's shift.

Snyder recalled some of his own chases with bootleggers.

"They would throw a smoke screen at me in valleys. It was a spray can hooked to the tailpipe -- you just couldn't see. I remember I chased one who threw a smoke screen on me and then shot the whole windshield out of my car. I never did get 'em. That's as close as I ever got to getting hurt chasing bootleggers.

"In 1927 I turned in about 3,000 gallons of corn whiskey. They had false bottoms in the car, and it was hard to tell if anything was there. They wouldn't stop for you, and you'd have a partner shoot the tires off a lot of them with a rifle. So that was a great day in those days."

The officers worked 14 hours at night, 10 hours in the day, with two days off every two weeks. But they were on call at all times.

Since there was no mobile radio contact (the first one-way radio system was installed in cars in the early 1930s), the officers tended to hang around the courthouse or a local firehouse that had a phone.

One of the officers came up with the idea of placing a flashing red beacon light on a pole atop the Rockville courthouse. When flashing, it would alert police that they had a call or were wanted at the office. In 1927, similar lights were used at district stations in Silver Spring and Bethesda.

"Believe it or not," Mehrling said, "we used to use a light like that on top of a 7-Eleven store in Silver Spring when I first joined the department in 1971."

Mehrling said the store's clerks would flick on the light if they thought they were about to be robbed, and police in the area would see the beacon and come running.

"That was our modern technology," she said.