In the late 1970s, Patrolman Ron Starr of the Southeast District of the Baltimore City Police Department had finished a 4 p.m.-12 a.m. shift, and was told by his staff lieutenant to head home, despite weather reports predicting a huge snowstorm.
“That morning, around 8 or 9 a.m., they didn’t ask me, they said ‘Get in here,’” Starr says. “I looked outside and it was all white. I put on my uniform and packed a sandwich. There were no buses, no cars, no anything.”
Starr “literally walked” down the Jones Falls Expressway to his beat, Old Town Mall, an industrial neighborhood north of Little Italy.
Back then, officers didn’t have radios, so Starr found a call box and reported to headquarters that “things were fine.” Stores were open for business and people were beginning to dig themselves out.
Unbeknownst to Starr, however, the news media had been alerting unsavory elements to a golden opportunity.
“They were telling people not to call the police because they were snowbound and couldn’t get to their cars,” Starr says.
Just outside of Old Town Mall, some folks with cars and less-than-sterling ethics loaded up chains, tire irons and baseball bats. Arriving in Old Town Mall, they hooked the chains from their cars to the metal grates that protected the storefronts. After popping off the grates, they used the tire irons and bats to smash windows and gain entry.
Thus began a serious ordeal for the only cop on duty in that neighborhood, and backup out of the question.
“I would run up to them on the 400 block of N. Gay St. and scare them off,” says Starr. “Then, they would go up to the 500 block, and I would chase them off of there, back to the 400 block. It was back and forth.”
The looters quickly tired of Starr’s interference, and they saw that backup wasn’t coming any time soon. They accosted him and pulled the brass buttons off his uniform, rendering him disheveled and exhausted. When Starr finally made it back to Southeast District headquarters, he found that the stitching on his holster was also partially unraveled.
“Unbeknownst to me, they had tried to get my gun,” he says.
Prompted by a supervisor, Starr wrote up a detailed report of his battle, all the while under the sinking feeling that he was about to lose his job.
“Downtown called me, and I thought, ‘This is the end,’” he says.
Hanging his head, Starr prepared himself to bid farewell to the department. Then, a higher-up delivered unexpected news.
“You’re famous now.”
Starr was trotted out in front of reporters from the “Baltimore Sun,” “Time-Life Magazine,” and other outlets, who interviewed him about how he had “saved the inner city from mass destruction.”
“I went from thinking I was going to be fired to becoming a national folk hero—well, in my own mind at least,” says Starr, shaking his head at the memory.
Ron Starr recently retired from the Baltimore City Police Department after 38 years as a Southeast District beat cop. He was one of few cops who both field trained in the Southeast and worked in the Southeast.
“I’m very proud of that,” says Starr.
He entered police work at age 29, following a brief career in insurance sales and marketing.
“I was not a salesperson,” he says. “I was not pushy. In sales you’ve got to be pushy. If you’re not pushing your product, you’re not a salesperson; you’re an order-taker, and that’s what I was.”
But don’t police officers have to be pushy?
“No,” says Starr, “not pushy. You do have to be authoritarian and definitely in charge.”
Starr applied to the Baltimore City Police Department in 1975, just after citywide strikes had decimated the force.
“I knew I wanted a permanent job, something I would enjoy,” he says.
Starr soon discovered his true calling—foot patrol.
“Every time there was a foot post open, I requested it,” he says. “I didn’t want to work in a car. I had a personality where I just wanted to work with people and get to know them, and they got to know me.”
He adds that he enjoyed following up on both the little calls and the “big important calls.”
“It was fun,” says Starr. “You had people out there who really wanted to help you; they weren’t out for their own gain. They wanted to see you accomplish things.”
Starr made valuable connections outside the department, too.
“I will always remember the people,” he said. “I was in Home Depot two days ago, and I saw a couple of my friends from Little Italy. They thanked me profusely for working the area. I am very, very proud that I was their footman.”
Starr saw taking the complaints of citizens as an important part of the job.
“That’s one of the things I tried to impress on other officers,” he said. “The people who are angry—the good people who pay our salaries—are not angry at us. They’re angry about everything else and they just take it out on us.”
Very active in the Fraternal Order of Police, Starr plans to remain so in his retirement. He also plans to do some fishing on his boat, “Off Duty,” and continue to take his dog, Buddy Buttons, along on every adventure.
by Erik Zygmont