The scene was straight from the ’60s—stunned and angry students watching their comrades handcuffed by the police and shoved into waiting paddy wagons. But these weren’t protest-hardened radicals; they were junior and senior high school kids from Montgomery County, Md., one of Washington’s most affluent suburbs. Nearly 300 of them have been arrested since September after being caught with marijuana on campus.
The unlikely strategist of the schoolyard drug raids is Montgomery County Police Chief Robert diGrazia, 50, a model of a modern police reformer but contentious wherever he has served—from Marin County to St. Louis to Boston. A liberal who has publicly characterized many of his fellow police chiefs as “pet rocks” and “archaic Neanderthals,” diGrazia has openly supported gun control, not to mention the decriminalization of pot. Yet he has also vowed to continue the raids—and the use of undercover cops on campus—until drug use in the schools is under control. His own feelings aside, he believes students must be taught that schools are not a sanctuary for breaking the law. “Very bluntly,” he declares, “everyone was taking a copout on this—saying that there was nothing that could be done.”
Though most Montgomery County parents are enthusiastically backing the chief, diGrazia’s critics say the raids are a smoke screen, as it were, to divert attention from problems within his department. Since taking command two years ago, he has angered the police rank and file by placing civilians in top posts in the department and moving to end the four-day week in order to put more patrolmen on the streets during peak crime hours. While criticizing the cops for taking a “bureaucratic approach” to their work, he has declared a moratorium on promotions pending a reassessment of department procedures.
Police Association President Jerry Boone says diGrazia is moving too far too fast. “I think he could be a great chief,” Boone admits, “but you’ve got to do something for the personnel to get them to do something for you.” Counters the chief: “Police have been spoon-fed honey, and people aren’t being honest with them about the problems. People are going to expect more and more from us as a service delivery organization, and we’re not going to be able to get by with the macho cops-and-robbers bit anymore.” DiGrazia’s own definition of a cop: “a social worker who carries a gun.”
For months diGrazia’s reforms have been a campaign issue in the race for Montgomery County executive and could eventually cost him his job. Meantime two policemen’s organizations have treated the chief to lopsided votes of no confidence, while a local citizens’ group has instigated a grand jury investigation to check out charges of mismanagement and squandering public funds.
For diGrazia, the political pitfalls of running a large suburban police force seem worlds removed from San Francisco’s Marina district, the Italian neighborhood where he was raised by immigrant parents. “There, everybody grew up to be a priest, a crook or a cop,” he jokes. “On my first day of grammar school, I didn’t know a word of English.” DiGrazia wanted to be a cop “from day one,” but after high school and two years in the Coast Guard, he went to work at Macy’s to support his widowed mother and younger brother. Not until he was 31 did he begin his career as a deputy sheriff in Marin County, Calif. By 1969 he was named police chief of St. Louis County, Mo.
Three years later he was raided away by Boston Mayor Kevin White. Quickly he began fighting corruption from within while confronting a mounting public furor without: a stormy, sometimes violent dispute over court-ordered busing. Though the commissioner was praised for his handling of the crisis, diGrazia resigned in 1976 following a political falling-out with the mayor. (Montgomery County also offered him a $10,000 boost to $45,000.) Divorced the next year, he lives in a townhouse in Montgomery Village, Md. with second wife Donna, 37, two teenage daughters by his first marriage and her three children from a former marriage. (Donna also works—as a high school vice-principal.)
Emblematic of both his calling and his wry sense of humor, diGrazia habitually wears a lapel pin with the profile of a pig. Turning the epithet around, he says “PIGS” stands for “pride, integrity, guts and service.” His hobbies are tennis, cycling and collecting wine labels—974 so far—which he has mounted on a wall.
Recently, after a clamorous teenage horde took to the streets to protest his drug arrests, diGrazia braved a two-hour meeting with 200 of the most irate. Though greeted by hisses and catcalls, he staunchly defended the crackdown on pot. The students were hardly won over, but the chief earned their respect. After he spoke with them, diGrazia was presented with a banana cream pie that was to have been thrust in his face.