Gaithersburg police history an arresting family story
July 11, 2001
Peggy Vaughn
Staff Writer

Ricky Carioti/The Gazette

Gaithersburg Police Officer Mary Whalen is surrounded by just a few of the thousands of historical photos and documents she turned up in the attics of City Hall, local history archives and office files.

Officer tracks four decades of change

in department

Investigating the facts at a crime scene is nothing new for Gaithersburg Police Officer Mary Whalen.

But recently, Whalen has been searching out and piecing together clues of a different kind.

After volunteering to compile a history of the Gaithersburg Police Department, Whalen, 38, found herself combing the dusty attics of City Hall for photos, tracking down long-retired officers for interviews and picking through the files of local historical associations.

"When I felt I had everything I needed, I'd find something else of interest," she said. "It became something of a treasure hunt. Or something of an obsession."

The result of her efforts -- an hour-long power point presentation of the department's history over the past four decades -- is more than just a dry retelling of dates and numbers.

With its mix of facts and often candid photos, many in black and white that date back to the department's founding in 1963, the history unfolds something like a treasured family scrapbook.

A family prone to wearing uniforms, badges and guns, that is.

Intended as special presentation for the annual get-together of all department personnel held in February, the results literally brought tears to the eyes of some long-time employees, Whalen said.

"I think it gave a sense of where we were, our heritage," she said. "I never cared much for history, but this [subject] intrigued me. It showed how tight-knit we are, like a family."

It also reflects the growth of both the city -- and crime. From one part-time officer and a budget of less than $5,000, the department now boasts 35 officers, nine civilian employees and a budget of more than $3 million.

Presented in chronological order, the history begins with a grainy black and white photo of the city's first Town Marshal, David Marstiller.

Tidbits gleaned from interviews with former officers, as well as 20 other local residents, helped flesh out those early days, Whalen said.

"[Marstiller] worked part-time and operated out of his [personally owned] 1963 Plymouth Spirit Fury," Whalen said. "At the time, that car was known to be faster than anything else out there. One guy told me the sight of that car alone was enough to make people think twice about trying to outrun it."

By 1967, the department hired a deputy to work alongside the chief.

"I've been told they called him Barney Fife," Whalen said. "It was during the time of the ['Andy Griffith'] television show. Seeing him in a photo with his gun strapped low on his thigh, he looked the part."

Mayor Sidney A. Katz said viewing the presentation brought back many memories of the city's small town past.

"I realized I'd forgotten things along the way, it was really remarkable seeing all those faces [from the past]," he said. "To undertake such an endeavor was really remarkable. It allows everyone to know where we've been and where we're going."

Whalen traces the department's current emphasis on professionalism and training to the1970s when it expanded to four full-time officers, brought in new technology like radar equipment and agreed to share radio dispatching with Montgomery County Police.

"It's so interesting to see the changes in technology over the years, from [speed] radar to the lasers we use today," Whalen said. "We used semi-automatic weapons here long before other [police] departments did, and took some flack for that, but now they're the standard. When you're a small department, you research everything well and we were ahead of the times."

The history covers department "firsts," like hiring its first female officer in 1979. That officer, Mary Ann Viverette, rose in the ranks and now serves as the department's first female Chief of Police.

Viverette is credited with another first; in 1986, she was the first of four officers in the department's history to fire a gun in the course of duty. All four shootings were deemed justified, Whalen said.

Viverette helped Whalen decide on the scope of the history and sort through the thousands of photos and documents available.

"I'd seen other departments do annual reports with some history in them, but never anything like this [presentation]," Viverette. "This is an eye opener, especially for our newer officers. I think it helps build esprit d' corps."

Like any family history, the history also contains the department's less than glorious moments.

In 1980, the city's acting police chief was charged with gun theft after selling some department guns to a gun dealer in Rockville.

"Needless to say, the first thing the next incoming chief did was tighten up property handling policies here," Whalen said. "And today, they're still drum tight."

Then there was the time, just a few years ago, when an officer accidentally shot himself in the leg while sitting in his patrol car at Lakeforest shopping mall.

Whalen's research revealed some things remained constant, such as the department's longstanding focus on traffic control and staffing special city events such as Olde Towne Day, Whalen said.

But in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with several open-air drug markets springing up in the city, the department found itself responding to an unwelcome new role.

"We weren't really ready to respond to the [narcotics] problem," Whalen said. "I found so many articles saying people were calling for help with the situation. We added new officers and narcotics training."

It began a "community policing" program, getting officers out and into the neighborhoods where drug abuse was especially prevalent -- in cars, on foot and later by bike.

"[Officer] Don Pike had the foot patrol in Olde Towne," she said. "He had the names, dates of birth, of everyone on that route on piece of paper in his pocket. People loved it and even today remember it and talk about it."

For a short while, the department even opened a substation of sorts.

"We operated out of the 'the Alamo,' an apartment given to us by the Streamside Apartments on North Summit," she said. "They said come on in, the visibility of the police here is great."

By the early 1990s, gangs and graffiti began to surface. To battle that, the department added services like anti-drug programs taught to city fifth-graders, after-school play programs and an officer assigned to Gaithersburg High School.

With vagrancy on the rise, it began outreach programs for the homeless that continue today.

"This is so much more than just police work, we do so much out there," Whalen said.