Cornelius J. “Neil” Behan, who led the Baltimore County Police Department for 17 years and was known nationally for promoting community policing strategies and gun control, as died at 97, the Baltimore Sun reports. He joined the county police department in 1977, recruited from a top post in the New York Police Department. At the time, he was seen as a candidate to succeed that city’s police commissioner, but said, “I have an opportunity to become chief of an agency, and you don’t get opportunities like that too often.” Behan went on to be credited with modernizing the 1,400-member department as its chief, and to be seen as an innovator in crime prevention.
His work included establishing Community Oriented Police Enforcement units that became national models. Under Behan, officers were first equipped with bulletproof vests and with 9 mm semiautomatic handguns instead of revolvers, as more powerful and deadly firearms became more common on the street. When Behan retired in 1993, then-County Executive Roger Hayden said he had transformed the department “into not only a strong crime-fighting organization but also an excellent crime-preventing organization.” Over the years, Behan was recruited to apply to become the top cop in cities including Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, where search committees twice recommended him for commissioner. Behan was so vocal with concerns about the proliferation of powerful guns that he faced pointed criticism from the National Rifle Association. As he lobbied against federal legislation that loosened restrictions on the sale of guns and ammunition in 1986, the group sent mailings to Maryland residents calling him “a New York City import” who “is hard at work undermining your gun rights.” Behan replied: “Twenty thousand people die every year from handguns. We don’t need any legislation that makes guns more available.” After his retirement, he continued to promote gun control and better policing, serving as a liaison to Congress and state legislatures for the Major Cities Chiefs Association.