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

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.

He later moved to the Maryland State Police, initially as a patrol officer at the Forestville barracks, and was quickly promoted to investigator. A memorable case was the Interstate 95 rock-throwing attack that left several people injured, including 16-year-old aspiring artist Destiny Morris. The defendants were convicted.

"That's when I realized that if you put a lot of hard work and dedication into a case, you might not close every case, but you'll close most of them," Herron said.

As a state police administrator, Herron supervised the violent-crimes strike force and narcotics. He retired in 2003 as a region commander.

"When I first met him" in the early 1980s, "my first thought was here is a centurion in the true sense of the word, one who protects the community," said William D. Missouri, chief administrative judge of the Prince George's Circuit Court. "He acted and looked the part of someone you would expect to see in a uniform. He was strictly on point and about the business of protecting the public."

Herron came to his current job at a time when the police department was operating under consent decrees with the U.S. Justice Department because of excessive force. Officials were struggling with increases in homicides, carjackings, rapes and robberies. Morale was low among police. There were problems with the 911 dispatch center.

Herron, with Johnson's blessing, increased staffing, upgraded technology and equipped the county with a more advanced radio system. He sent firefighters specializing in hazardous materials back to their stations to respond to regular calls until they were needed for incidents. He put desk police officers back on the street, called daily meetings for the department's command staff and eliminated the bonus day off given to officers working overtime at Washington Redskins games.

"I realized that our productivity didn't match the number of hours our officers were on patrol," he said.

His boss was impressed. "Vernon Herron has done an excellent job overseeing our public safety agencies," Johnson said. "His ability to be very forthcoming about issues we face in public safety has helped him earn the respect and trust of our citizens."

Herron, though, met some resistance. The fire chief opposed the redeployment of his hazmat personnel, but Herron pointed to $50,000 a month in overtime the county was paying for the 15-member unit.

Others have blamed Herron for some public safety missteps, including the jailhouse death last month of Ronnie L. White, 19, who was charged with killing police Cpl. Richard S. Findley.

"With all of this going on, we have to look at the person in charge," said Sharon Weidenfeld, a private investigator who often works for lawyers in police misconduct cases. "He hasn't given answers, and he has to be held accountable."

Herron said he has made it a policy to be open with the public. "I think we have the public's trust because we have been honest about our faults," he said.

Even some people who deal with him in contentious situations give him high marks for fairness. "If there have been any issues, he's had an open door and a listening ear," said Vince Canales, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 89, which represents police in negotiations.

People who work with Herron said his no-nonsense management style can make him impatient with incompetence, but they give him kudos for his work ethic. "I can pick up the phone, and we can have a straight conversation," said State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey.

Herron counted as low points of his tenure the deaths of four police officers, including Charles Hughes, 31, who died of a heart attack last week; the slaying of three men at Uno's restaurant; and the deaths of eight people after an illegal road race on Indian Head Highway in February. And then there was the conviction in February of his deputy director of homeland security -- Keith Washington -- for fatally shooting a furniture deliveryman.

"That was definitely one of the grimmest moments," he said.

Herron said he has tried to counter any bitterness his decisions have caused by being responsive. He visits agencies to find out what people need in order to improve morale and productivity, including changes as sweeping as a larger police force or as small as comfortable chairs for 911 dispatch operators. Earlier this year, Herron lobbied for increased death benefits for the families of officers slain on the job.

One recent day, he planned a visit to see Hughes's widow. "It's going to be tough for her. They had three kids," said Herron, a married father and grandfather.

Herron said he feels fortunate to have his job.

"I went into law enforcement because I wanted to make a difference in people's lives," he said. "Every time that we have one less homicide, one less robbery, one less rape than the quarter before, I feel like there is one less person who was victimized because of the work we do."

Staff writer Ruben Castaneda contributed to this report.

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