Robert McCullough was sworn in Tuesday as the first Black police chief in the 149-year history of the Baltimore County Police Department.

After serving for 35 years with the County Police Department before retiring as a colonel and operations bureau chief in 2021, McCullough returns two years later to lead the agency that he grew up in, he said.

“Personally I enjoyed retirement life. But even in enjoyment, there was something missing in my life,” McCullough told The Baltimore Banner in an interview. He missed being a leader, a mentor and a colleague at work, he said.

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Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., a Democrat, announced his nomination of McCullough nearly two weeks ago.

“Chief McCullough is a born leader through and through, he will reaffirm the principles of equity and inclusivity and make Baltimore County stronger every day,” Olszewski said during remarks Tuesday. “But it stands out today because he is the right chief at the right moment to lead this department into the future.”

The Baltimore County Council voted unanimously to confirm McCullough on Monday night.

“I’m just gonna go ahead and call you Chief,’ because I think we’re unanimous up here,” Councilman Todd K. Crandell, a Republican, said during Monday night’s hearing. “I know that you have a lot of experience within the agency. You know how things work, and you can hit the ground running.”

Councilman David Marks, a Republican, said he was encouraged by McCullough’s priorities for the department: recruitment and retention, visibility, collaboration with all stakeholders, transparency and best practices, and modernization.

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“And I’m confident that with your 30-plus year career in public safety, you will be the right man do to this,” Marks said.

During an interview with The Banner, McCullough also said he wants officers to be attuned to quality-of-life issues such as trash, code violations and abandoned vehicles.

“And even if it’s something that doesn’t fall under the response to the Police Department, to make sure that we’re directing those issues to the proper agency inside the county government or at the state level, or even in the private sector, to address those issues. And to do it in a timely fashion,” he said.

Originally from West Baltimore’s Parkwood neighborhood, McCullough joined the county’s department in 1985 at age 18. Even as a child he always wanted to be a police officer, said his brother, Donnell McCullough.

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“I would want to be a construction worker and he wanted to be a policeman,” said Donnell McCullough, who now works in the state’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. “We went on to high school, he still talked about becoming a policeman. Then he went into the National Guard, got back from training and applied to become a Baltimore County Police [officer].”

“And he did because he loves it,” he added.

Retired Col. Johnny Whitehead, the first Black captain in the Baltimore County Police Department, is related to the McCulloughs. .He said he encouraged Robert to join the department when he was young.

“He was a very mature, smart and humble 18-year-old, so I thought his temperament would be perfect for policing,” Whitehead said.

When McCullough joined the department in 1985, he recalled being one of just two Black cadets that year, although there were about 80 Black officers by that time.

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Of the 1,747 sworn officers currently with the department, 77% of the them are white and 16.5% are Black, a department spokesperson said Tuesday.

Whitehead, who retired from the department in 1997, said McCullough “has a reputation of treating people with dignity and respect. And he’s going to expect that from members of the department and how they treat each other and how they treat the public. I think that’s one of the big things that his leadership is going to bring it upon them.”

Dennis Delp, who recently led the department as interim police chief, has worked with McCullough over the course of his more than 30-year career.

Robert McCullough is sworn in as the first Black police chief of Baltimore County on April 18, 2023
Robert McCullough is sworn in as the first Black police chief of Baltimore County. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

“I think it will be an easy and quick transition for him to reengage with the community and the Police Department, and I’m looking forward to leading with him,” said Delp, who will return to the department as a colonel. “He has very steady leadership, very stoic, and I have received really good sage advice from him through the years.”

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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, according to previous reporting from WYPR.

McCullough has lived in Baltimore County for more than 30 years. He holds a master’s degree in management from 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.

McCullough said that the possibility of becoming chief didn’t occur to him until the end of his career.

”I saw it as a viable option or opportunity for myself, and now it’s here,” he said.