Ex-police chief who had DUI tries to steer others off his path
Sunday, November 1, 2009
Former Alexandria police chief David P. Baker tried to get a new life insurance policy recently when the weight of what he'd done smacked him again. The man on the other end of the phone lowered his voice and said, "There's nothing I can do for you."
Baker has had similar experiences since July, when he was caught drunk behind the wheel of an unmarked city car after a fender-bender in Arlington County. In that one moment, the well-respected chief lost it all.
"If you ever get to the point where I was, think of me and hopefully you won't end up where I am," Baker said, speaking publicly about his arrest for the first time. "One day I was the police chief, and the next I was arrested."
Baker, who resigned from his position, has begun a campaign to help others learn from his arrest. Now, instead of leading his officers in high-profile cases, he is delivering that message to those same officers at roll call, and even to inmates at the Alexandria jail.
He tells his story for what he hopes will be a wider audience on a YouTube video titled "Even a Police Chief," released last week by Checkpoint Strikeforce, a local anti-drunken-driving group. He also plans to speak to a high school class and to cadets at another police agency.
In the interview, Baker spoke frankly about the embarrassment and regret, the anguish of pleading guilty to a crime he knew he'd committed and the degradation of being in a prison jumpsuit, locked up for five days in the Arlington jail.
He also said he is often humiliated when he is going about his daily routine and someone recognizes him as the chief who got arrested, which happened recently at a local Verizon store.
"You feel a little sleazy, I suppose," Baker said. "And you believe others feel the same way.
Baker's outreach is voluntary; he was not ordered by the court to complete community service. He said he is speaking publicly because "it's the right thing to do."
As a police chief, he used to work with the Checkpoint Strikeforce campaign. And for years, he said, he has been an advocate for stricter penalties for drunk drivers. When he left the D.C. police force in 1991, he was a captain heading the traffic section, his duties including being in charge of DUI checkpoints.
So when Kurt Erickson, chief executive officer of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program, recently asked him about being in a Checkpoint Strikeforce video, he decided it was a good idea. Last year, there were 455 alcohol-related traffic deaths in the District, Maryland and Virginia.
Baker, 59, also had decided he did not want to shy away from the public.
"The easier thing to do is to hide and not show your face," Baker said. "If you lack the courage to face your issues, you'll forever be defined by the event."
He agreed to speak about his outreach efforts, but he declined to talk about any details leading up to his crash. He did answer a question about what he was thinking when he got behind the wheel that night:
"People get lazy and complacent in their thinking, and you get into circumstances you never thought you'd be in," he said. "Sometimes you end up making the wrong decisions, and it will haunt you forever."
In addition to stepping down from the job he loved -- he was with the department for almost 20 years, the last three as chief -- Baker is now learning the discomfort of a man with a criminal record.
His career in government is over, and finding employment again will be more difficult, he said. He can't even rent a Zipcar for seven years. As part of his sentence, Baker must complete 20 hours of alcohol education, and he has had to forfeit his license for a year. He has enlisted a friend, a 90-year-old man, to drive him places.
At his son's wedding last month, he was anxious about seeing people he hadn't encountered since his arrest. "I try to be pleasant and not over-explain," he said.
He said he knew pretty quickly after his arrest that he would plead guilty and serve five days in jail. The incarceration was mandatory because his blood-alcohol level was 0.19, more than twice Virginia's legal limit. He also said he knew he would not be able to keep his position as top cop.
"How could I keep my job? You can't have it both ways," Baker said. "As a police chief, you're supposed to be a model for responsibility and good decisions."
After the accident, he said, he reached out to the woman whose car he hit near Interstate 66 because he "regretted somebody else was involved in the incident." Arlington police said the woman suffered "whiplash, neck or back pain."
Baker said he'll start looking for a job at some point. But for now, he's spending time warning people not to do what he did.
"There isn't a day that goes by where I don't have a period of sadness," Baker said. "The consequences are devastating."