Defusing Crises Never-Ending Job For Safety Chief In Pr. George's

Public Safety Director Vernon Herron, right, stands by Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson, who addresses the death of inmate Ronnie L. White. Herron was appointed by Johnson in 2003. (Richard A. Lipski/Post)
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By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 18, 2008

As Prince George's County police Chief Melvin C. High delivered his resignation speech two weeks ago, Vernon Herron thought to himself: What next?

The county's public safety director, Herron had stood with county police as they mourned an officer killed during an auto theft investigation in June. And he stood next to his boss, County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D), as Johnson announced that the jailhouse death of the officer's suspected killer might have been a homicide.

He watched the FBI begin a probe and two agencies start independent reviews of the jail. Just when things had begun to settle down, he learned that another police officer fatally shot a man he said was trying to rob him. All came as Herron was engaged in difficult negotiations with unions representing police, emergency services and jail employees.

"Then High resigns," Herron said, shaking his head.

Herron, 54, has lived something of a run-and-gun existence since he was tapped by Johnson to fill the post of director of public safety and homeland security in November 2003. He left the Maryland State Police after 27 years to oversee the county's police, fire/EMS, corrections, 911 dispatch center and emergency management, as well as homeland security. Since then, he has become the face of Prince George's, right up there with Johnson -- on hand to allay citizen concerns, celebrate victories and take the heat for crises.

"Things that have not gone right in public safety didn't start last night," Herron said in a recent interview. "It takes a while to turn a big ship, but I believe we have started it in motion."

Herron, well educated and sharply dressed, embodies the black middle class that has come to dominate Prince George's. As a boy growing up in Illinois, he was tall, thin and studious.

He learned about justice from his parents, who moved the family to East St. Louis in 1957, after the killing of Emmett Till, the black teenager beaten to death in a racially motivated attack. "We knew we had to get our sons out of Mississippi," recalled Herron's mother, Lucille, now 77.

Lucille Herron said she and her late husband, Archie, were strict with their six children. Vernon Herron avoided the trouble some of his friends got into as teenagers, but one of his best friends was killed in a street robbery.

"Watching what happened to him had a lot to do with making me determined to make something of myself," he said.

After high school, Herron headed for Springfield College. He later received a bachelor's degree from the University of Maryland University College and a master's degree from Johns Hopkins University. In 1975, he applied for a job with the FBI and was hired as a general clerk at headquarters in the District.

"They offered me $7,900 a year," Herron said. He packed his car and drove from Illinois to Prince George's.

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