July 11, 2008 — North East, MD: Marshall L. Purner, 81, North East, went from being a city cop to being the thin blue line on a one-man force in Cecil County. “I got interested in law enforcement while I was in the army so I joined the Louisville Kentucky Police Department when I was discharged from the Army,” he explained.
That 1,500 member agency was in the lead in professionalizing police work, “so I attended an academy before hitting the street. They brought instructors in from the Southern Police Institute to train us in the latest law enforcement techniques such as fingerprinting, scientific investigation, reporting writing, and law. In addition we had physical and firearms instruction.”
After three years of chasing crooks and keeping peace in the city, the rookie who had become adept at urban policing, traded that work for his version of Mayberry, his hometown of North East, population 1,600. There he signed on as the Chief of Police for what was a sleepy beat when compared to his rookie years in the city of nearly 400,000 people.
“When I started as chief in North East on May 2, 1957, at 10:00 a.m., I was paid $62 for a sixty hour week. The town also gave me $3.00 a week to use my own vehicle to patrol and answer calls. I did a lot of foot beat work on Main Street. I wasn’t going to burn up my weekly gas allotment, when it cost .25-cents a gallon. I worked out of one desk drawer in the town hall, a building that was built as a town lockup in the late 1800s. If I needed back-up I had to get to a telephone since I didn’t have a radio to call the state police. The town finally got me a police car in 1963.”
“After riding a two-man squad car in the city, with specialized divisions for handling the problems that came up and plenty of back-up, I had a lot of gearing down to do since I was the entire police department. To start with it was my hometown so I knew everybody in those days. I responded to calls, made traffic stops, moved the kids along, kept drunks off the street, and occasionally handled a Saturday night fight. But sometimes I responded to calls that required something more than a quick response of an officer to settle things down. In a large force, I’d hand those types of things off to the detectives or other divisions such as vice, juvenile or traffic.”
The chief, after some nine years of checking meters and door knobs, chasing speeders, and keeping order in barrooms at night in that one-man agency, decided to join a larger six-man department in Cecil County. “In 1966 I was hired on as a patrolman in Elkton by Chief Thomas N. McIntire. Jr. I was behind the wheel of a patrol car on the midnight shift, usually. Generally an additional officer patrolled in another vehicle, so at least two of us were available to answer calls and back each other up on barroom fights and things like that.”
Purner recalls one of his humorous stories. “One December evening I received a radio call from dispatch that someone had stolen items from a car at the Bowling Alley. When I arrived, a witness told me he’d seen a man a man in a Santa Claus outfit running from the parking lot carrying something. Well I had ID on my suspect so I put out a be on the lookout broadcast for this red-suited gentleman. With all Cecil County prowl cars on the road that night on the lookout, I soon found out that it was one of my fellow officers, Joseph Zurolo, who was playing Santa for a group kids at the Bowling Alley. Of course, he had nothing to do with the incident. The real perpetrator was never caught.”
Over the next couple of decades the Elkton department grew to 25 personnel and Purner watched as trained officers became a requirement and computers allowed small town officers to instantly check on suspects. “Back in the 1950s, once they handed a man his badge, nightstick, gun and handcuffs, they’d say go out and do the job. About the only training they got was whatever older officers or a state troopers could share. That was about it, except for large cities and state police agencies. In the 1970s mandatory training requirements were put in place and eventually officers had to complete training before starting on the job.”
Although he was involved in small town policing for most of his career his time spanned important eras, such as the urban tensions of the 1960s and the professionalization of the criminal justice system. Right in the middle of the Cold War, he guarded a section of the Pennsylvania railroad, making sure Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s train passed safely through Cecil County in September 1959. When Bobby Kennedy’s Funeral Train made its slow way across the top of the Chesapeake, he again provided security, keeping the route crowded with people clear.
In 1989, after 23 years with the county seat’s force, the 61-year-old decided it was time to sit back and let others maintain the peace. “On my last day on the job, I was detailed to work with an FBI-agent staking out a local motel. On my way home after work, I had a heart attack and had to rush to the Veteran’s Administration Hospital.”
Purner is enjoying retirement these days as he devotes time to collecting decoys, playing the guitar and banjo with various groups, and stays active in community activities.
Additional Biographical Notes About Marshall L. Purner
Marshall enlisted in the army in 1946, where as an MP he worked with German police during the allied occupation and his outfit provided security at the Nuremberg Trials. At the end of the infantryman’s tour, he was based in Louisville, Kentucky where he was a member of color guard escorting dead soldiers from the Korean War.
With his military experience, the law enforcement bug had bit him so when he was discharged he got a got a job on a big city force, Louisville, KY. During the stint on the 1,500-member force, he graduated from the department’s academy, but after three years he was ready to return to his hometown. Back home, he was hired on as the Chief of Police in North East, population 1,600, literally serving as the thin blue line on the one-man force.
Back on the Shore, having a local lawman graduate from an academy was something of a rarity in rural Maryland for new hires were typically given a stick, a badge and gun and told to hit the road. He started in North East on May 2, 1957 at 10 a.m. and became a patrolman in Elkton February 21, 1966. He retired in 1989.