When 25-year-old LaMonte Cooke, a Philadelphian, joined the Kent County Sheriff’s Office in 1975, the entire seven-man force was white. “The day I interviewed for the deputy’s job with Sheriff Bartus Vickers, he had four questions for me. He wanted to know if I voted, what my party affiliation was, how well I got along with whites, and I forget the last one. I must have answered them correctly for he told me to report to work the next day.”
“That next morning, my first day in law enforcement, the sheriff allowed me to borrow one of his revolvers since in those days you bought your own weapon. That was my first gun. For orientation, one of the deputies took me out on the road and showed me around the county. Here I was, a man who’d never given a thought about this type of work, policing Kent County.”
Once he began patrolling as a deputy, he regularly turned heads from people surprised to see an African-American in a Kent County Sheriff’s uniform. The city-guy was much more comfortable with the ways of the Philadelphia, than the cornfields and waterways of a county with 16,000 people.
While he learned on-the-job in Maryland’s smallest county, members of the force and community gradually became accustomed to seeing him on-the-job. “Responding to a call once in an outlying area, I rang the doorbell of a house. When the lady answered and saw me in uniform, with a patrol car sitting behind me, she was so surprised that she telephoned the sheriff to confirm that I was one of his officers before she’d talk to me.”
One particular night, while out handling a complaint, teenagers smashed watermelons around Cooke’s usual parking spot, a place for watching the traffic flow up and down the main road through the county, Route 213. When his fellow officers heard about it, “they wrote up those kids for every infraction they could find,” he says. “After that, this sort of stuff stopped, and I knew I had been accepted professionally.
Over the next twelve-years he rose through the ranks. As a college educated officer, he was a naturally suited for the increasing administrative duties of running a department since minimum requirements were being put in place for jails and police agencies. He first worked to bring an outdated old building, constructed in the 1880s, into compliance and became the first local facility in the state to reach full compliance. As a result of his handling of several challenging management assignments, Sheriff Blizzard promoted him to Chief Deputy.
Cooke recalls a little mayhem that occurred at Washington College. It was during an annual student liberating tradition, a fling for International Workers Day. “On May Day some students celebrated by streaking or making nude dashes across the campus and town. One year , I got a call about undressed people running across the highway, and when I pulled up I saw several of them. Most dashed off, but I caught one, a student nicknamed Miami, whom I put in the patrol car. But 200 students quickly surrounded the vehicle chanting ‘free Miami.’ They wouldn’t let me move so there I sat with yelling people all around me. I radioed for backup and it wasn’t too long before I saw all these bodies diving out-of-the-way. Coming through the crowd was Chief Deputy Blizzard just swinging his nightstick and the mob was just jumping out-of-the-way. Once he opened a path, he yelled hit it. I did but they followed us to the jail. It was sort of tense with all these students surrounding the building so we called for help from the State Police. Finally the dean from the college came down to get the students to disperse.”
“In 1987 Queen Anne’s County was closing its old, outdated jail and opening a modern Detention Center. I applied for the position of warden to run that agency. There were several highly qualified candidates with lots of corrections experience. But I went ahead and applied for the job since the pay was a lot more than I was making as Chief Deputy in Kent. I got the appointment so my first task was to build the institution, which opened in 1988 with room for 80-inmates. About two years later a modular addition added 24 more beds, which increased the county’s detention center to 104 beds.”
“In 2008 the county commissioners approved a new modular addition to accommodate a growing female inmate population and a more secure male dormitory unit. Completed in 2009, it increased the total inmate capacity to the facility to 148 beds. I was also working with a committee of several counties considering a regional corrections facility. ”
Reflecting on nearly forty-years of wearing a badge, this professionally recognized trailblazer, who has been involved in modernizing law enforcement and corrections in two counties, says: “From the time when I started in Kent County things have changed so much. When you went into the jail in those days, you pretty well knew everybody. Now, we such transient populations and we are face with more mental health issues, an increasingly diverse population, gangs and more hardened criminals.”
During his tenure, Cooke served on a number of boards and commissions including: twice elected as president of the Maryland Correctional Administrators Association, a vice chairman on the Md. Police and Correctional Training Commission, a commissioner on the Md. State Commission on Criminal Sentencing Policy, acting county administrator for Queen Anne’s County, board of directors for Peoples Bank of Kent County and working with other criminal justice agencies on legislative matters in Annapolis.
Warden LaMonte Cooke, of the Queen Anne’s County Detention Center, got his start in the old days when just a handful of deputies, a couple of patrol cars, and a century old jails built for wrongdoers of another era made up the Sheriff’s Departments in the Eastern Shore county. In 2008, three African-Americans served in the Kent County Sheriff’s Office, which had twenty-two sworn officers.