It’s not possible to say how Maryland would be different if Bishop L. Robinson had run for mayor in 1999. Would he have been elected instead of Martin O’Malley, the ambitious white pseudo-wonk who benefited from a split vote inspired by a broad-but-weak field of African-American candidates? And if Robinson, the city’s first African-American police commissioner, had been mayor of Baltimore instead of O’Malley, would Baltimore have suffered under its early 2000s police-chief merry-go-round and the disastrous arrest-them-all policies O’Malley promulgated?
Robinson owed Baltimore nothing by then, having done a series of hard and stressful jobs, one after another. A city police officer from 1952 until he became commissioner in 1984, he served through the years when black officers were at best ignored by their white fellows. As David Simon wrote years later, Baltimore’s African-American cops were not permitted in white neighborhoods and not even allowed to drive police cars until 1966. Robinson endured it and, with dozens (then hundreds) of other extraordinary men and women, earned the respect they should have gotten from their first day.
“I didn’t know Bishop personally, only his reputation amongst the department staff,” says Phillip B. J. Reid, who joined the department in 1969, taught in the academy in 1975 and later went on to lead FBI field offices in several states and helped crack the Lockerbie bombing case. “He heavily supported my interest in teaching at the Police Academy during that era and made it happen. I am forever grateful because it eventually led to my becoming an FBI agent.”
Born in Baltimore, Bishop Robinson went to Frederick Douglass High School and then the U.S. Army, in which he served 1945-1946. He joined the Baltimore Police Department in 1952, and earned the rank of sergeant in 1964. He made lieutenant in 1969, captain in ’71, and Major in ’73. He rose even faster after that, becoming a deputy commissioner by 1978. He served as commissioner from 1984 until 1987, when he became secretary of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services under then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer. Paris Glendening kept him on until 1997.
In 1999, following critical reports in The Sun, Robinson headed up a team that assessed the state’s “boot camp” correctional facilities for youth. As in many other states, Maryland’s boot camps were sadistic hellholes, as Robinson’s assessment team calmly documented. The camps were re-established on a “therapeutic model.” As Baltimore’s new mayor cracked down on city youth, Robinson served in the Governor’s Subcabinet for Children, Youth and Families, returning as Secretary of the Maryland Department of Juvenile Justice from 2000 until 2003.
“I know I paid my dues,” he told WBAL after the city named the police headquarters building after him. “That I know.”