« Taking the Harbor plunge | Main | On patrol in Towson »

October 31, 2008

The Espantoon

There has been great response to my postings and those of the Baltimore Sun's Copy Desk Chief John E. McIntyre on old police terms, cliches and the differences in cop lingo between Baltimore and New York.

One reader reminded me of a New York term I had all but forgotten: "On the job."

Several readers have commented on the Espantoon -- defined in Webster's Third Edition: "In Baltimore, a policeman's stick" -- and one asked for a picture of one. Here are a couple by Sun photographer Amy Davis shot back in 2000 when then Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris reversed a ban and allowed officers to once again carry the sticks. Tradition returned.

Here is "Nightstick Joe" making an Espantoon in the basement of his Federal Hill rowhouse in 2000, and another of him outside with the stick.







What follows is the complete story published on Sept. 23, 2000 that I wrote on the return of the Espantoon. I've been warned against posting long takes from old stories, but so many want to know the history I think some of you might be interested:

By Peter Hermann

Nightstick Joe is back in business.

To the delight of tradition-minded Baltimore police officers, the city's new commissioner agreed yesterday to allow his troops to carry the once-banned espantoon, a wooden nightstick with an ornately tooled handle and a long leather strap for twirling.

Joseph Hlafka, who retired last year after three decades as an officer on the force and is best known by his nickname earned for turning out the sticks on his basement lathe, will once again see his handiwork being used by officers patrolling city streets.

Orders for the $30 sticks are coming in. A local police supply store has ordered three dozen to boost its stock. Commissioner Edward T. Norris bought five. Young officers who have never seen one are calling with questions.

"They want to know how to twirl it," Hlafka said.

Before Norris arrived from New York in January, he had never heard of an "espantoon." He knew the generic "baton," "nightstick" and "billy club," and was well acquainted with New York's technical "PR-24."

He challenged his command staff to prove the term belongs solely to Mobtown. And there, in Webster's Third Edition: "Espantoon, Baltimore, a policeman's club."

Norris signed the order yesterday, and the espantoon once again became a sanctioned, but optional, piece of police equipment.

"When I found out what they meant to the rank and file, I said, `Bring them back,'" said Norris, who is trying to boost morale. "It is a tremendous part of the history of this Police Department."

Hlafka is delighted. When the sticks were barred in 1994 by a commissioner who didn't like them, his production dropped from about 70 a month to 30, with most of them going to officers in departments across the country and collectors.

They are now made from blocks of Bubinga, a hardwood imported from South Africa that doesn't get brittle in cold weather. Hlafka whittles and sands the wood to remove visible blemishes on the sticks, which measure from 22 inches to 25 inches long.

It is art with a purpose. The espantoon recalls the bygone times of Baltimore law enforcement, when running afoul of an officer meant trouble. It fits in with the city's new assertive policing strategy of a new department leader who wants "police to be the police again."

It is just what Hlafka, 62, wants to hear. "No one sold drugs on my post," he said while standing outside his William Street rowhouse, twirling an espantoon he had just finished. "They knew they would have to answer to me."

Former Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier banned espantoons in 1994, saying that they weren't all the same length and weight and that an officer twirling the stick was too intimidating to the citizenry.

In one order, the Californian uprooted decades of Baltimore police history. Espantoons - the word is derived from "spontoon," a weapon carried by members of a Roman legion - were first issued to nightshift officers before the age of radio communication.

Officers used the sticks to bang on sidewalks or drainpipes to call for help. Twirling the stick became an art. "Telling a policeman not to swing his espantoon would be like asking a happy man not to whistle," The Sun said in a 1947 article.

To replace the espantoons, Frazier issued long batons, called Koga sticks, which many officers refused to carry because they were cumbersome. It required hours of training in martial arts self-defense tactics, and some argued that the Koga stick was more dangerous than the espantoon.

Sergeants were reluctant to send officers to Koga classes, and a trainer argued that some of the tactics being taught could be lethal on the street.

Capt. Michael Andrew was among a handful of high-ranking officers who never took Koga training. He still has the espantoon his father gave him when he graduated from the police academy in 1973.

His father, George Andrew, bought the espantoon from a West Baltimore Street shop when he joined the city force in 1940. The nightstick has been used ever since, "with the exception of five years when Frazier banned it, and we had to put it in mothballs," the younger Andrew said.

In the old days, the espantoon was required equipment. "You better not have got caught without that stick under your arm," he said. "If you ever left it in your car, you'd get yelled at by your sergeant."

The Andrews' espantoon started at the Eastern District, where his father began his career at the old stationhouse at East Fayette and North Caroline streets, and then moved with him to a foot patrol on Pennsylvania Avenue, in the Western.

The nightstick is now in the hands of his son, and back on the city's east side. The 49-year-old captain addressed a group of younger officers assigned to flood the crime-troubled Eastern, and held up the espantoon as an invaluable tool for their jobs.

He and other officers say that it can be used to stop threats without resorting to a gun.

The elder Andrew, who retired as a lieutenant in 1974, recalled arresting a drunken blacksmith on East Fayette Street who had grabbed his legs. "I tapped him with the stick," the 86-year-old said. "He let go."

Police commanders view the nightstick as an important tool that can be used to subdue people without killing them.

"Mace is very effective, and it certainly has done its job," said Deputy Commissioner Bert Shirey, who still has the espantoon he was issued at the academy 34 years ago. "But there are times when Mace doesn't work, and it's nice to have something in between Mace and a gun."

There is no doubt that getting hit with an espantoon hurts, and it can cause serious injury.

Hlafka, who walked a beat at both the Inner Harbor and Lexington Market during his final years on the force, said he has struck many people with an espantoon over the course of his career.

"People used to complain that we would hit them with the stick," Hlfaka said. "But would they rather get hit by a 9 mm bullet? Then, you don't come back."

All content herein is © 2008 The Baltimore Sun and may not be republished without permission.

Posted by Peter Hermann at 6:03 AM | | Comments (5)


Thanks, Peter!

I remember well the neighborhood beat cop twirling his espantoon while walking the streets. Brings back fond memories of a city lost.

In 1974, just after the strike, I was assigned to the Northeastern District Special Operations foot squad. I had received a Nightstick Joe style of stick (made by someone located in the Northern) for graduation.

My field training officer and I walked the Northwood and Coldspring Lane shopping centers.

On one of my first nights, i proudly pointed out that my Uncle Roy owned the hardware store adjacent to the Haven Lounge. As we approached the store, Uncle Roy came out to greet us. As we chatted, my partner, Larry, as a reminder to me to carry my stick in my hand, not a belt loop, asked if I wanted to two acres. thinking he meant real estate I replied that I would. The end of his stick fell from his hand and twirled toward my crotch with lightening speed. In the same instant I deflected the stick, understood that I should have my stick always at the ready, and that acres were not the same as achers.

Over the next eleven years I was able to pass Larry's teachings on to other rookies.

i remember the espantoon fondly and miss swinging my stick.i would like to know where i can find one

I was given mine to me by a retiring Baltimore City Officer almost 30 years ago.
I have carried it for all of those years and the only thing that finally needed repair after 25 years, was the leather strap.
I prefer it to the ASP style batons for two reasons. (1)It is very intimidating tucked up under your arm during a suspicious person or disturbance call. You can actually watch peoples eyes glancing down at it. (2) No doubt it has helped me defuse many a tense situation without having had to use it. People have come out and said they just know it's gonna hurt if they get hit with it.
It stands out from all other types of sticks. Compare it to the more thinly constructed, lighter weight ASP style baton. It just doesn't provide the high visibility as the wooden stick and the impact is no where near the same. Just ask a co-worker who has held a strike training pad in defensive tactics class. They usually don't even want to take a full strike with the heavily padded training shield. I have always felt the projection of the fear of getting hit has been responsible for less strikes over the years than some of the newer officers with their ASP style batons. Several officers I know don't even bother carrying their ASP style baton because they say it only hits hard enough to piss 'em off, not stop the fight. Like the ancient tipstaff carried by our British cousins of years ago, it is a world-wide recognized symbol of police authority, just as much as the badge or gun. I will proudly hang it on my wall when I retire next year.

Post a comment

All comments must be approved by the blog author. Please do not resubmit comments if they do not immediately appear. You are not required to use your full name when posting, but you should use a real e-mail address. Comments may be republished in print, but we will not publish your e-mail address. Our full Terms of Service are available here.

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About Peter Hermann
Peter Hermann started covering news for The Baltimore Sun in 1990, first in Anne Arundel County and, starting in 1994, reporting on the Baltimore Police Department. In 2001, he was assigned to Jerusalem as the Baltimore Sun's Middle East correspondent. He returned in 2005 as an assistant city editor overseeing crime coverage. In 2008, Peter returned to the beat as a daily reporter and blogger. A recent BBC report featured him in a segment on the harsh realities of covering crime in Baltimore.

Coverage will focus on crime trends, problems in neighborhoods in the city and elsewhere, profiles of victims and police officers and try to offer readers a fresh perspective on one of the most vexing issues facing Baltimore and its future.

Contributing to this blog is Justin Fenton, who joined The Sun in 2005 and has covered the Baltimore City Police Department and the criminal justice system since 2008. His work includes an investigation into Cal Ripken Jr.’s minor league baseball stadium deal with his hometown of Aberdeen, a three-part series chronicling a ruthless con woman, coverage of the killing of five Amish children at a schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pa., and a job swap with a British crime reporter to explore differences in crime-fighting. A special report looking into how city police handle rape cases led to sweeping reforms that changed the way sexual assaults are investigated in Baltimore. He was recognized as the best reporter in Baltimore by the City Paper in 2010 and by Baltimore Magazine in 2011.

In the news

Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
  • Breaking News newsletter
When a big news event breaks, we'll e-mail you the basics with links to up-to-date details.
Sign up

Charm City Current
Stay connected