Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski on Friday announced that he had picked Robert McCullough to be the county’s next police chief, turning to a retired leader who had worked his way up through the ranks and would become the first Black person to head the agency.
The 35-year department veteran, who retired as a colonel and operations bureau chief in 2021, said he was drawn back by the importance of the job and the chance to help change the culture of policing.
“The Baltimore County Police Department is at a critical juncture,” said McCullough, 56. ““I know and understand the issues our officers are facing with changing laws, evolving threats and perceptions on what policing is and should be. As a leader, I stand with and for our police officers.”
McCullough, who was joined by his wife and daughter at a news conference in Towson on Friday, thanked Olszewski for having confidence in his leadership and reflected on the historic moment, getting emotional at times. McCullough told reporters that he remembered when he was the only African American on his shift.
“Some would say the chance for someone who looked like me, an 18-year-old kid from West Baltimore, to become chief of police in Baltimore County was less than zero,” he said.
McCullough said he didn’t necessarily have his eyes on the top job when he first started, but said that “becoming a police officer was about fulfilling a childhood dream. My goal was not to make history — my goal was to work hard.”
His daughter, Robyne, recalled watching her father put on a uniform every day.
”My dad’s been a police officer since before I was born. And I grew up with his work and the department being very much part of my life. And I know that this work is very much a part of who he is,” she said.
”When I was young, he would visit my school, teaching kids about safety. He made sure that he was present as an officer, that the kids could ask questions and could see positive examples. … So he was present and involved in that way, in addition to being present as my and my brother’s dad. And I don’t have any doubts that he’ll be that same present and engaged example as chief of police in Baltimore County.”
Olszewski praised McCullough as “the right chief — at the right moment — to help lead the Baltimore County Police Department into the future.”'
The Democratic county executive said he was confident that under McCullough’s leadership, the county could “continue to strengthen accountability, promote more equitable policing, and keep Baltimore County’s residents and neighborhoods safe for years to come.”
McCullough will have an annual salary of $275,000 and lead a department with 1,747 sworn officers.
Olszewski said a “diverse set of constituencies” assisted in the search, and cited the work of Deputy Administrative Officer Rebecca Young, Community Engagement Director Mandy Remmell and county NAACP President Danita Tolson.
Julian Jones Jr., the chairman of the County Council, said he expects to nominate McCullough on April 17 and looks forward to working with him. He said McCullough is “well-regarded and respected by members of the police force.”
McCullough will replace Melissa Hyatt, whom Olszewski picked to be chief in 2019 and who was the first woman to hold that position. Last November, Olszewski announced that Hyatt would leave the post but did not say why.
“People come and go for a multitude of reasons,” explained Sean Naron, a spokesman for the county executive, at the time.
Hyatt had lost the support of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 4. In May 2022, the police union gave Hyatt a vote of no confidence, saying officers were frustrated by her lack of leadership.
Since Hyatt’s departure, the agency has been led on an interim basis by Dennis Delp, a 28-year veteran of the department. He initially expressed interest in having the job permanently, but later backed off, citing personal reasons.
David Folderauer, the Baltimore County FOP president, said the organization backs McCullough’s appointment in part because members wanted an internal candidate. He wished McCullough well in bringing “the police department back to greatness,” he said.
“It was great in the past, but we’re not there now. We’re just not,” he said.
Although McCullough has been retired for two years, Folderauer said the incoming chief still has “his finger on the pulse” of the county. “We as the FOP are in favor of that,” he said.
McCullough has lived in Baltimore County for more than 30 years. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree and a Master of Science degree in management from the Johns Hopkins University. He also has gotten formal training through the Johns Hopkins Police Executive Leadership Program and the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety’s School of Police Staff and Command.
Anthony Russell, a retired president and consultant to the Blue Guardians, a group representing Baltimore County officers of color, said McCullough is well-equipped to move the department toward becoming more equitable and inclusive, and into “modern-day policing.”
”As a young officer, Rob went through went some discrimination,” Russell said. “And he fully understands what it takes to overcome that, and fully understands how he can transition the department to where we can reduce that discrimination.
“We still have some police units that are all-white, that are not diverse,” he said. “And when you’re policing the community, you need all hands on deck. You need people from every experience, from every walk of life, to be able to get to the root issues, to be able to solve crime as quickly as possible.
“I’m praying for him, and he has my support,” Russell said. “Hopefully this is just the beginning, and we no longer have to say ‘the first.’”
Ryan Coleman, president of the Randallstown NAACP, said having a qualified Black chief has been a long time coming.
”As the county has become more diverse … it seems right that the police chief would also be African American,” he said.
The county of about 846,000 residents is now about 54% white (excluding Hispanics), 31% Black, nearly 7% Asian and 6% Latino, according to 2022 census figures.
Coleman said his organization plans to interface with McCullough to help move the agency forward because, Coleman said, ”if he’s successful, the county’s successful.” But appointing a Black chief is only a step, he added; the real work is making the agency more inclusive and making the county safe.
Tolson, the NAACP leader, agreed. The community wants “somebody that can get the job done and decrease the crime” because “crime has no color.”
While she said the civil rights organization will hold McCullough accountable regardless of his color, she added, “We will continue to support him and his efforts to make changes.”
Speaking to reporters, McCullough said that a lot of the problems that police departments face stem from insufficient training and education.
“If we’re going to reform policing, we need to focus on providing world-class education to our officers for the problems they deal with,” he said.
McCullough also spoke of his philosophy on law enforcement and of the benefit of his experience as a cadet “working on nearly every assignment the department had to offer.” He tried to share those lessons with future police cadets.
“My message to my cadets was always that we affect people’s lives every day,” he said. “That can be in a positive way or negative way. And it’s our responsibility to fix people’s lives in a positive way.”
John Lee a reporter for WYPR, a news partner of The Baltimore Banner, contributed to this report.