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City Folk

The Family Business

Third-generation cop was born to serve

Photo: Sam Holden, License: N/A

Sam Holden

It was pitch black, every electric light out for miles, and as he headed for the water, Artie Erdman could hear the trees cracking and falling all around. “You can hear them, but you don’t know if they’re coming at you,” he says.

Huge propane tanks bobbed in the 8-foot waves, hissing where they’d been ripped from the houses they’d fueled. Erdman and his buddies, working from a 12-foot inflatable boat, had to chase them down and turn off the valves.

Every so often the crew would come upon a submerged car. “We had to dive to make sure there was no one in there,” Erdman says.

Amidst all this, with wind gusting over 70 miles an hour, were the snakes.

“Snakes and spiders, swimming and trying to get into the boat,” Erdman says. “I thought to myself, What am I doing here?

It was Sept. 19, 2003, and Erdman was 31 years into a police career that would go another nine, until last month, when he retired from the Baltimore County Police Department. Erdman could have stayed in the construction business. He did a year or two after high school, working steel and shooting Gunnite swimming pools, he says, but that work was spotty and “there was no retirement.” Also, “If it rained, we didn’t get paid.”

Erdman got paid when Hurricane Isabel flooded Baltimore. He worked 24 hours straight with others from the department’s dive team, navigating tiny Zodiac boats through sewage-choked swells covering Bowleys Quarters and Millers Island. The teams rescued more than 100 people, and their members received the Medal of Honor, the police department’s highest award.

“Chris Wrzosek was operating. We had six on the boat,” Erdman remembers, recently, between bites of a shrimp salad sandwich at a Mount Vernon eatery. “We spotted a family [waiting for rescue] on their deck—mom, dad, and a baby. I got off to let them on the boat.”

Erdman waited on the deck, pounded by waves in the pitch black, for about 45 minutes until his teammates returned. Later, Erdman’s team found itself trying to save another family trapped in their home. Sgt. Wrzosek drove the boat into the garage, but the waves flooded in and slammed the crew into the ceiling, so they backed out. Erdman swam around, hanging on, then moving between waves, and found a stairway.

“Everyone got out that night,” he says. “I knew if we let go, we’d have washed out and they’d have found us a day later in the Back River.”

He may have wondered what he was doing, but Erdman, a tall, talkative guy with thick wrists and strong hands, was born and bred to be a cop. The family once owned a farmstead off Harford Road (see: Erdman Avenue). His father served 36 years as a Baltimore City patrolman, walking the beat on Pennsylvania Avenue, and was there when the 1968 riots broke out.

“He worked 24 hours straight, I think,” Erdman says of his dad’s work to quell the unrest. “Remember, back then they didn’t have radios. They had call boxes.” The footmen could stop at a light pole and call a sergeant, or pound his nightstick on the sidewalk to get the attention of the patrolman down the block or around the corner. “They made a distinct sound,” Erdman says.

And Walter Erdman had a distinct stick—the one his father, Artie’s grandfather, had carried on the force, starting in 1907.

Maurice Erdman, too, won a Medal of Honor. According to a news clipping on an unofficial Baltimore Police history site, Maurice Erdman arrested Lee Estep at a dice game behind a church near the corner of Madison and Preston, on the West Side. Estep, “Known As [a] ‘Bad’ Negro,” according to the racially charged media account of the August 1914 incident, slashed the cop’s throat with a razor and ran. Erdman fell to his knees and, with one hand stanching the blood, drew his gun and shot Estep to death. Erdman survived the incident and stayed on the force until his retirement in 1947.

Maurice Erdman died in 1950—a year before Artie Erdman was born: “My father always talked proudly of pop, the famous policeman,” Artie Erdman says.

Walter Erdman advised his son not to become a city cop, so, just married and planning a family, Artie applied to the county, where his family’s legacy meant nothing. “I wanted to do it on my own,” Erdman says. “I didn’t want nobody saying ‘your dad got you the job.’” Erdman took a pay cut from his construction work (the police pay was $8,600 a year in 1973, he says).

Erdman worked as a cop in Woodlawn and Windsor Mill before becoming a diver for the county. Working the Bay, he pulled guns and shell casings from the muck at the bottom or sometimes 70 feet down, on the floor of a reservoir. He dove through ice. He was trained to extract pilots from Navy war planes, if necessary. He learned how to shut down a freighter ship’s systems in order to protect fellow divers outside.

As a patrolman, he responded to calls. Erdman says he took a call in the mid-1980s for shots fired. A city police officer had interrupted an armed robber as he took his victim to an ATM. The bad guy shot at the cop with a .44-caliber Magnum but missed, then ran across the city line and took cover under someone’s back deck. Erdman says he and the city cop ended up crouched behind a car. “The lieutenant came and told us to stand down, ’cause we were in the kill zone,” Erdman says. The two patrolmen crawled away on their bellies. A SWAT team later captured the shooter, he says.

Erdman never caught the city cop’s name, he says, but last month, during the Sailabration festival, the county dive team was tasked with checking ships’ hulls for bombs. He got to talking with one of the city officers, who started to reminisce about the same incident. “All these years later,” Erdman says. His name was Rambeau.

Mostly, though, Erdman’s 40-year career, and his father’s 36 before that, and his grandfather’s 40 years before that—all of it was solving people’s problems, or at least soothing them, he says.

“Being a cop, you hear a lot of people’s woes, stories you can’t do anything about,” Erdman says. “Really, they just want someone to talk to.”

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