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C. Fraser Smith: Bishop Robinson exuded calm authority

Inside the Schaefer organization, everyone called him Bishop.

Everyone knew “Bishop” was not a religious title, of course. And yet even his name conveyed a level of respect.

Bishop L. Robinson Sr. — who died Monday at 86 — carried himself with a sense of pride and self-confidence.

If anyone had wanted to use a title, it would have been Commissioner. He was the commander of Baltimore’s police department, the first African-American commissioner.

The title had immediate importance. Robinson was a transitional figure in the city.

How would the department feel about having a black man in charge? How would the city feel? He calmed everyone with an easy sense of authority and common sense.

After an earlier period of heavy-handed leadership at the city department, Robinson became the face of trust on the streets of the city and, eventually, in the inner councils of William Donald Schaefer’s city and later, when Schafer became governor, the state.

He moved ahead in the bad, old days.

When he started out, black police could not patrol in white neighborhoods. The growing number of black police in the city might have introduced a new level of tension in police community relations. Robinson’s presence said: Not to worry.

He was a steadying force — with emphasis on force and steadying. In a sense, he rose from below the ranks. He started as a park policeman. Between 1952 and 1984, he became the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in city history.

He was an authority figure without trying to be one. It was in him.

I always thought he was like those athletes who see the whole field. To me, he was saying: “I know what’s happening here. Do you?” He knew how to read people. His path from patrolman to top cop came at a time when black men did not progress easily, if at all, in the ranks of any institution.

With his keen eye for talent, Schaefer spotted him early on.

“Learn about budgets,” he counseled. If he moved up in the department, Schaefer knew, he would have to know the numbers.

The two men may have seemed something of an odd couple. Both had an inner strength — not immediately evident in Schaefer’s case. Not immediately. If challenged, the mayor (later the governor) responded with sometimes surprising push-back.

No one made that misjudgment about Robinson.

He had a look, an expression, a disarming and yet soothing quality.

He had been in World War II. That background was there in his bearing. War may have been part of the bond he had with Schaefer, an Army officer in London during the Blitz.

Robinson remained a central figure in Schaefer’s political world. He gave advice. As governor, Schafer made Robinson corrections and public safety secretary.

“Bishop was the boss’s go-to guy on anything having to do with the police,” says Mark Wasserman, now an external affairs vice president at the University of Maryland Hospital System.

Mary Ann Saar, former secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, knew what made him successful.

“Bishop was running a huge operation — 12,000 employees and a billion-dollar budget. He went in early and came home late,” she told The Sun. “He knew how to talk to people, and he knew how to get information. That’s what made him a good police officer.”

In a statement, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said:

“This is a man whose life should be celebrated for tearing down barriers by climbing to the top of an organization that historically treated African-Americans with disrespect and derision.”

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in the Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.