When former First Selectman Ray Baldwin was sworn in to the Police Commission Tuesday, it marked the first time in more than 30 years that he had an official law enforcement role in town. But as his wife, Mary Ann, said, he had really never stopped being a cop.
“It’s kind of like serving in the Marine Corps — even when you leave, you never stop being a marine,” Baldwin said. “Serving on the police department was a great experience. A lot of the guys I served with, we’re friends to this day.”
Baldwin joined the department in 1971 after a four-year stint with the Marines that included a tour in Vietnam. Though the Connecticut suburbs might seem like a walk in the park compared to the jungles of Southeast Asia, Baldwin said, police work in town did not match people’s idyllic memories.
“The war in Vietnam was just ending, and there was a lot of anti-authority sentiment around,” he said. “Plus there was no Route 8 yet, so anyone that wanted to go from Bridgeport to Waterbury or Danbury had to go through town.”
The 1970s were also a time when heroin was becoming a serious problem, and drug-related burglaries, what people now call home invasions, were on the rise, meaning officers had more close calls than one might think, he said.
“One time I was looking into a burglary, and as I came out the back door of the house, there was a guy coming up the stairs on the porch with a rifle and a shotgun in his hands,” Baldwin said. “As we were wrestling for the guns, one of them went off between us.”
Despite the danger, though, Baldwin said he had planned to make police work his permanent career, but the close-knit nature of the department, which in turn led to low turnover, got in the way.
“I had been on the police for 10 years, and there hadn’t even been a promotional exam offered,” he said. “I was kind of looking at the future, and I was spending time in court watching attorneys do their work, and I thought, ‘I can do this,’” he said. “The University of Bridgeport law school had started offering day and evening classes, and then about two years into law school I actually got promoted to sergeant, and then I had to make a decision whether I would stay with the police or go into law practice.”
Despite leaving the police department in 1985, Baldwin said, he never lost his interest in community policing. Still, he said, his fond memories of the department would not be an issue when it came to making decisions that affect the department and its officers.
“The officers working at the department now aren’t the guys I served with,” he said. “There’s only about three people there whose time overlapped mine. Plus, I see the role of the commission as not supervisory. By statute we do the hiring and firing, and make the promotions, and we create the overall direction of the department, and facilitate making the job of police officer in town better.”