Retired homicide detective/former Salisbury police chief Stephen Tabeling explores some of Baltimore’s most notorious murders in his new book
The City of Baltimore boasts its share of charms, to be sure. One of its most colorful ones is as the setting of a good crime drama. In the 1990s, for example, the city once nicknamed “Bodymore, Murderland” by locals was the gritty tableau of the Emmy-winning Homicide: Life on the Street. That was followed a decade later by what many considered an even more riveting B’more-based series, The Wire. Now, there is former Baltimore homicide detective Stephen Tabeling’s new book, You Can’t Stop Murder: Truths about Policing in Baltimore and Beyond, which, once again, rips its material straight from the headlines of some of the city’s most lurid cases.
With more than 60 years’ worth of policework, six bronze stars and 48 commendations under his holster, Tabeling,
a former lieutenant who had even served for a while as Salisbury’s chief of police, knows whereof he speaks. And he’s more than willing to do so — even though some of his opinions and conclusions about modern policing may upset some torchbearers of the status quo.
In addition to some carefully considered theories about what is right and wrong with the system, the book’s 220 pages are chock full of electrifying murder cases. Whether it’s the case of the murderous vigilante group called Black October, the disaffected psychopath who had a deadly rendezvous with city hall, the crazed sniper who mowed down seven of Baltimore’s Finest in a bloody rampage over a girl, or the would-be hitman who’d set his sights directly on Tabeling himself, You Can’t Stop Murder is a nonfiction thriller of the truest kind.
Recently, Coastal Style associate editor Nick Brandi sat down with Tabeling in the hopes of having this decorated investigator answer, rather than ask, the questions for a change. We’re pleased to report that he did.
Given the realities of policework in the modern era, if you were coming up now, would you still seek a career in law enforcement?
I never wanted to be a cop. With my lack of formal education at the time, the police department was the only position
I could get that would offer me security and feed my family. Steady employment with benefits and a pension. After three months on the street, I determined that I was made for this work. This position also gave me the incentive to do better. I was able to get a college education — all at the expense of the department. So, today I would apply for law enforcement, but this time, with a better education, I would apply for the FBI.
Do you think the system will ever change for the better, either locally or across the country?
I think that local law enforcement today is headed in the wrong direction. Police departments are becoming too military. Departments throughout the country are more interested in forming SWAT teams than they are in the law. Departments, in my opinion, lack the proper legal training. It must be remembered that uniform officers are the backbone of law enforcement. What that officer does as the first officer on the scene can make or break a case. What he or she does on a crime scene can find its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Therefore, the need for good legal training is paramount. A law-enforcement officer does not have to be a lawyer, but he or she must know how to apply the Fourth, Fifth and
Sixth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
How many times have you drawn and fired your weapon in the line of duty?
I have drawn my weapon three times during my 25-year career: once to stop an armed holdup; the second time, I shot and killed an armed holdup man.
Wow. I think that's a difficult thing for the average person to imagine. Would you mind talking about what happened on that occasion?
I was confronted with a suspect pointing a gun at me. We were about 20 feet apart. I got off the first shot. I was happy to be alive, but my lieutenant and sergeant had treated me horribly. They were not concerned about my feelings; their concern was if I had sufficient probable cause for my actions. An investigation revealed that this suspect was involved in several other robberies and shootings. Also, the crime lab determined that while testing my weapon, it misfired three out of four times. After three weeks of suspension without pay, I was tried in homicide court and exonerated.
How did that make you feel?
It was a very stressful three weeks. I had trouble sleeping; I couldn't get it off my mind. The investigation was very helpful with the fact that this person was involved in other shootings and robberies; his weapon was fully loaded and capable of being fired; my weapon misfired on test. How lucky was I that the weapon fired at the scene? All this helped me to work my way through the fact that I had taken a human life… very stressful.
This experience also led me to my decision to seek an education in psychology. I made up my mind that if I were ever in a position to conduct investigations of police shootings, I would never treat the officer or officers involved the way I was treated by my superiors.
Subsequently, I was promoted to lieutenant, assigned to the homicide squad and in the 1970s was responsible for investigating all police-related shootings. Eventually, I earned a Master of Science degree in psychology. Today, police officers are no longer suspended without pay for line-of-duty shootings, and they are not tried in criminal court.
You were a lieutenant for the Baltimore Police Department and, later, Salisbury's chief of police. Would you kindly compare and contrast those experiences?
The difference is going from the responsibility for 28 men to an entire department. Salisbury was a department in transition. I was asked by the mayor to reconstruct and modernize the department. I was able to make plans for a new police building, upgrade the training, increase the size of the department and obtain substantial raises for police personnel and establish a new communications system. When you are the decision-maker, the pressure is much greater. I also learned very early on that you must be able to get along with the local politicians and be available to the community.
Considering the message of your book is somewhat controversial, do you think it is likely to make you any new enemies?
Most of the feedback I'm getting is positive. The officers say it's about time some truth was told.
What advice would you give to a young man or woman who is contemplating a career in law enforcement?
I would encourage a young person to enter law enforcement. But I would emphasize the importance of dedication and the want to help people. I would tell them that you have to learn to get self-satisfaction from your work in law enforcement; it can be a thankless job. It's an honorable profession and requires integrity and honesty.