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Robinson, Bishop L. 1927–

Bishop L. Robinson 1927–

Criminal justice official

Bishop L. Robinson was the first African American to serve as police commissioner in the city of Baltimore, Maryland. He held that position for three years during the 1980s before moving on to lead the state's Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. In 1999 Robinson was appointed to oversee reform of the state's trouble-plagued juvenile justice system. A longtime advocate for rehabilitation, not punishment, Robinson nevertheless recognized that socioeconomic factors had all but erased the tight-knit communities of previous generations, leading to an increase in the number of juvenile offenders. “There ought to be the busybodies like there were in my neighborhood,” he said in an interview by Mary Lou Jay in Nota Bene. “Miss Jones was across the street watching everything you did and telling your mother and father. We need more of those.”

Encouraged to Value Education

Born in 1927, Robinson grew up in Baltimore's housing projects. His mother was a schoolteacher, but his father was unable to read or write, and worked in a laundry. “He believed education was number one, because he didn't have one,” Robinson recalled in Nota Bene. “When I needed money for lunch, he'd tell me to come down to the laundry where he worked to get it. When I asked him, ‘Why do you always make me come down here?’ he told me, ‘So you can see what I do.’ The sweat would be running off him as he was taking clothes out of the old tumbling washer. He'd ask, ‘Do you want this job? If you don't, then go to school.’”

After attending Frederick Douglass High School, Robinson served two years in the U.S. Army and went on to earn his undergraduate degree from the University of Baltimore. From Coppin State College, a historically black college in the city, he earned a master's degree in education, but chose law enforcement as his career. In 1952 he joined the Baltimore Police Department (BPD), which for the next fourteen years was a drastically segregated force. Black officers were not permitted to patrol white neighborhoods, could not command their own squad cars, and were barred from attaining a certain rank. In 1966, however, some much-needed reforms were instituted within the BPD after the city and its officials were targeted by the civil-rights advocacy group Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

In 1976 Robinson was a founding member of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. He returned to school during the 1980s and earned a law degree from the University of Baltimore. He rose to the rank of deputy commissioner of the BPD operations bureau, and became the city's first African-American commissioner of police in 1984. He served for three years before becoming head of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which oversees the state's prisons, parole and probation services, weapons permits, and police commissions. He held that job for ten years before retiring in 1997, after which he worked in the private sector as a business development consultant with the aerospace firm Lockheed MartinIMS.

Recalled to Public Service

Robinson returned to public service in 1999 at the request of Maryland governor Parris N. Glendening and lieutenant governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who appointed him chair of a hastily created Boot Camp Independent Assessment Team. The state's system of juvenile-offender camps, known for their paramilitary-style approach, had recently been shut down after allegations of abuse by guards surfaced in a series of investigative reports published in the Baltimore Sun. In addition to ordering the camps to be closed and its offenders placed elsewhere in the system for the time being, Glendening also fired five of the state's highest-ranking justice officials and summoned an emergency panel to investigate the allegations of abuse. Robinson headed the commission, and his panel affirmed that abuse had indeed occurred.

One of the Maryland executives fired in the scandal was the state's Juvenile Justice secretary, and Glendening asked Robinson to fill in temporarily. He held the job for three more years, however, enacting significant reforms of the state's juvenile detention system. He closed several aging facilities, advocated better training and higher educational requirements for those who worked with juvenile offenders, and won increased funding for support services, which he considered vital to long-term crime prevention. Treatment and supervision programs, he argued, and not detention were the key to both helping troubled youth and keeping young offenders from evolving into career criminals. Addressing mental health issues was of paramount importance, he said. “In most cases as it relates to our high-needs youth, the problems have been there and they have been identified. But for some unknown reason, we wait until the kid commits a delinquent act before we decide that something should be done,” he testified in 2002 before the Maryland General Assembly's House Judiciary Committee, according to a report by Molly Rath in the Baltimore City Paper. “And we place him with an organization that is really not qualified to deal with severe mental-health problems.”

In 2002 Robinson oversaw the opening of a modern new facility to meet those needs. The Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center offered educational services as well as health assessments and treatment—both mental and physical—along with programs for substance abusers. He was also adamant that first-time, nonviolent offenders would do better remaining at home and under community treatment and supervision programs, which had proven success rates in comparison with detention. Helping youth who lived at home and remained in their same schools “allows them to learn to fully function as adults,” he asserted. “We have a very narrow window in which to work with these kids, because once they turn eighteen or twenty-one, they're out of our system.” In 2007 the BPD headquarters building was renamed in his honor as the Bishop L. Robinson Sr. Police Administration Building.

At a Glance …

Born January 16, 1927, in Baltimore, MD; married Ruth Ann Folio; children: Jessica. Military service: U.S. Army, 1945-46. Education: University of Baltimore, BS, 1971; Coppin State College, MEd, 1973; University of Baltimore School of Law, JD, 1986.

Career: Baltimore Police Department, officer after 1952, deputy commissioner of the operations bureau until 1984, police commissioner, 1984-87; Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, secretary, 1987-97; Lockheed Martin IMS, business development consultant, 1997-99; Maryland Governor's Boot Camp Independent Assessment Team, chair, 1999; Maryland Department of Juvenile Justice, secretary, 2000-03.

Memberships: American Correctional Association; International Association of Chiefs of Police (life member); Maryland Chiefs of Police Association; National Association of Black Public Administrators; National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE; founding member).

Selected awards: Speaker's Medallion, Maryland House of Delegates, 1998; First Citizen Award, Maryland Senate, 2003; Alumni honoree, Coppin State University, 2006.

Addresses: Office—c/o NOBLE National Office, 4609 Pinecrest Office Park Dr., Ste. F, Alexandria, VA 22312-1442.

Sources

Periodicals

Baltimore City Paper, February 6, 2002.

New York Times, December 19, 1999.

Nota Bene, Fall 2002.

Washington Times, August 2, 2001, p. 1.

Online

“Baltimore Renames City Police Headquarters,” WJZ-TV, March 14, 2007, http://wjz.com/topstories/Bishop.L.Robinson.2.425941.html (accessed November 16, 2007).

“Former Secretaries: Bishop L. Robinson,” Maryland Department of Juvenile Justice, October 9, 2007, http://www.msa.md.gov/msa/mdmanual/19djj/former/html/msa11919.html (accessed January 27, 2008).

—Carol Brennan

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