ESSEX — Captain Eliot Latchaw joined the Baltimore County Police Department as a cadet in 1994 when he was just 19. Last week, he took over as the commanding officer at Precinct 11 in Essex after over three years heading up Precinct 1, which stretches west from Baltimore City out to Halethorpe.
“I was never a great student in school,” the captain recalled with a laugh. “I’m a hands-on, go out there, visual kind of guy.”
Turns out, Latchaw’s start with the department was pretty hands-on.
He was working at a golf course to get through college when he noticed a shady character in the pro shop. Latchaw kept an eye on the gentleman, watched him steal a few high-end clubs and took his license plate number as the man cleared out. With Latchaw’s help, police tracked the man down and determined he was behind a series of thefts at golf courses around the city.
While assisting with that investigation, Latchaw got to know some officers and was ultimately invited to join them on a ride-along.
“I was so impressed,” he said. “I was like, ‘This is what I need to do.’”
So began nearly three decades of service, a career spanning many of the department’s precincts and special units.
Latchaw started as an officer at North Point, joining the Investigative Services Team as a detective and working undercover drug work. He was promoted to a corporal on the Parkville patrol, shifted to Cockeysville where he became a sergeant and then went up to the Criminal Investigations Bureau. He was one of the first officers on the Violent Crimes Unit, then shifted to the Tactical Unit where he was again promoted to lieutenant.
Back on the Criminal Investigations Bureau, he earned another promotion to become a captain overseeing Aviation, Canine and Marine Units, the Tactical Unit and bomb squad until he took over as the Precinct 1 commanding officer in 2017.
Throughout the many phases of his career with the department, Latchaw said he is always learning and growing. He has come to let a pretty simple philosophy guide his leadership.
“Do the right thing, and make a difference,” he said. “What matters to me is that you’re out there making a difference, making a positive impact on the community.”
As captain, Latchaw is responsible for making difficult decisions to keep the precinct running like a well-oiled machine. Sometimes those decisions aren’t easy or popular, he said, but he tries to take a collaborative approach to prioritize what’s best for the department and the community.
“It’s tough, being a leader in this agency, because being a leader means that sometimes you’re going to upset people,” he said. “What I try to do is, I try not to make decisions in a bubble. I try to bounce things off of others so that I know I’m on the right track.”
And in the last year or so, it’s gotten harder than it’s ever been before.
Law enforcement officers across the country have faced heightened scrutiny after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others at the hands of police. Waves of protests last summer called for reforming police practices or even defunding departments in favor of new approaches to public safety.
Latchaw said that the response to those incidents contributed to a stigma against police, despite fatal use of force incidents reflecting only a fraction of encounters between officers and the community members they serve and protect.
He refuted the idea that police are corrupt and should be defunded.
“Every profession has a percentage of employees that make mistakes or do things they shouldn’t be doing,” he said. “People are very quick to pass judgment and very quick to jump on that narrative and that bandwagon before they know the facts.”
That said, he acknowledged that some reforms can help the department improve.
He pointed to the widespread implementation of body cameras, which he said can help set the record straight when officers and citizens report conflicting stories. In many cases, he said, body camera footage affirms that an officer’s conduct is professional and appropriate.
Despite the stigma, he said he has received gift baskets, donated donuts and coffee, messages of support, even people stopping him on the street to thank him for his service. That is now more common than ever, he added.
At the end of the day, no matter what people think about the role of police, the core of the job remains the same. Officers take an oath to keep the public safe, and that’s what they strive to do every day.
“It doesn’t matter who you are,” he said. “If you call 911, we’re coming for you, we’re going to come help you, we’re going to come protect you, we’re going to come save you, we’re going to do whatever we need to do in an unbiased manner.”
Latchaw has two key hopes for his future in the profession — he wants to restore civility and respect, and he wants to create a foundation of holding people accountable for criminal behavior. These two threads coming together in tandem will help him create a safer Essex and help the department create a safer county.
That effort requires working together with community members, he said, adding that he hopes for a fair shake.
“We’re all in this together,” he said. “We have a super tough job, and we do our best. Sometimes it’s not perfect, and if it’s not perfect, we’ll fix it, we’ll deal with it, we’ll address it and we’ll learn from it to be better.”
The demands of the job take their toll on and off duty.
Latchaw tries not to bring work home with him, but has spent much of his career in roles that require him to be on-call even during his off hours. He said his wife and two teenagers are used to it, and said it’s a sacrifice he makes in order to give them a better life. While he enjoys hunting, fishing and boating, he doesn’t like to be too far from his phone in case duty calls.
“If something is going down here, this place is my responsibility, so I have to be available,” he said. “I enjoy chilling out, sitting by the fire pit and just hanging out, because I never know when the phone’s going to ring, and it’s going to be hitting the fan, and I have to spring into action.”
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