Montgomery County Police Chief Tom Manger is usually quick with a joke or a story. But on a December afternoon, the chief is somber. For the past six days, 24-year-old Officer Noah Leotta has been in a coma. While making a traffic stop in Rockville, Leotta was struck by a suspected drunken driver. Leotta’s parents are preparing to give the orders to take him off life support. By the next day, Manger knows, Leotta will be dead.
“This is the most difficult part of this job,” Manger says. “I’ve had to deal with the death of a number of officers since I’ve been a chief. To see the profound sadness that these families go through losing a son, a husband, it’s just heartbreaking, and it never leaves you. It just never leaves you.”
Manger sits in his office at Montgomery County police headquarters in Gaithersburg, where he oversees a force of more than 1,200 officers. His service pistol rests on his hip next to his smartphone. A body camera is clipped to his uniform near his badge. “I’ve been wearing one since June,” Manger says. He’s among 80 officers on the force who are taking part in a pilot program of police cameras that began earlier in 2015 after allegations of improper force in places such as Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, heightened the scrutiny of police across the country. “I’ve always contended: 99 percent of the time, cops are doing exactly what they’re supposed to do the way they’re supposed to do it,” Manger says. “For that 1 percent that aren’t, shame on them. This camera ought to either correct that behavior or hold folks more accountable. And that starts with me.”
Manger is animated when he speaks, a reminder that he once was a part-time actor. That’s how he met his wife, Jacqueline, an actress who shared the stage with him in the 1998 American Century Theater production of the musical Lady in the Dark in Arlington, Virginia.
“That seems like ages ago,” says Manger, 61. For the past 39 years, he’s been a cop. Manger grew up in Baltimore and Silver Spring, then spent 27 years as a Fairfax County police officer, including six as chief of police, and 12 years as Montgomery County police chief. He and Jacqueline live in Rockville with their son, Jack, 14, and daughter, Jesse, 12.
Bethesda Magazine spoke to Manger in December and again several weeks later.
Name: Tom Manger
Grew up in: Baltimore, Silver Spring
Lives in: Rockville
What made you want to be a cop?
What really caught my interest back in high school and during my years in college was Watergate. I was reading The Washington Post every day and following it like a soap opera. I was just riveted to the investigative reports that Woodward and Bernstein were doing. It got me very conscious of the injustices of the world. These two guys were trying to shine a light on something that was wrong.
When I started at the University of Maryland, I was a journalism major, and I was working in a newspaper office part time. I was a teenager just trying to make some money to afford to go to college. I got disillusioned with some of it. It almost seemed the reporters were driving the agenda. I thought maybe there was another way for me to right all the wrongs. I took a criminal justice class, and that really clicked with me.
My dad worked for Vice President [Spiro] Agnew’s office back then. Once or twice the vice president came over to our house for dinner. When he came over, there was a Secret Service detail all around our house. I remember taking our dog out. I’m 16, 17 years old. There’s a couple Secret Service agents standing in our backyard. I’m sure the agent standing in our backyard on a rainy evening in Silver Spring was thinking, Ain’t this a great job. But as a kid, I was thinking, This is pretty cool!
You were inspired by Watergate, and your father worked for Agnew? That must have made for some interesting conversations.
I grew up in Baltimore City until I was 14 years old. My father had gotten to know Mr. Agnew when they were in the service in World War II, and [they] had remained friends. When Agnew was elected to be governor of the state of Maryland, he came to my father and said, ‘I’ve got a staff position.’ My dad was working three jobs, barely cobbling together a living. Mr. Agnew was going to give him a job that would pay more than those three jobs put together. But it wasn’t a political job—my dad ran the mail room. He ran the fleet for the governor’s office. He was just good at that kind of stuff. When Mr. Agnew became vice president, my father did essentially the same thing for the vice president’s office. I tell you, any success that I have had is due to my mother and father. They taught me that honesty is everything. We had a pretty sharp focus on integrity in my house. I think that’s why I had a keen interest in Watergate. Back then, I had no political awareness at all in terms of Republicans and Democrats.
Can you give an example of your parents teaching you about honesty?
I was a freshman at the University of Maryland. I had designs of being a walk-on for the University of Maryland basketball team. I would go to Cole Field House when I didn’t have classes in the afternoon and get involved in pickup games. One day, I was in a pickup game with [future Hall of Famer] Moses Malone. Probably that practice taught me the most that I had no business playing basketball.
I played for an hour or so and I went back and grabbed my stuff, and somebody had stolen my wallet out of my bag. When I got home, I told my parents. My father at dinnertime said, ‘You’ve got to report it to the police.’ He made me get in the car, and we drove to the College Park police station. I walked up to the front desk with my father standing next to me. The officer takes the report. I said, ‘One of the things in my wallet was my driver’s license.’ He said, ‘I’ll run your driving record, and that way when you go to the Department of Motor Vehicles they’ll just issue you a new license.’
What I had forgotten was I had gotten a ticket for tailgating about a year earlier [from] a Montgomery County police officer. To tell you how long ago it was—the fine was $15. I walked up to the Silver Spring station on Sligo Avenue, paid $15 and that was that. I said, ‘I’m not telling my parents about it.’ The guy runs my driving record and he turns around and says, ‘Oh, I see you’ve got a ticket there, huh?’ So I have to tell my father now that I’ve got a ticket. My dad says to me, ‘I’m taking your driver’s license for six months. It’s not because you got that ticket. It’s because you lied.’ The lesson learned, and the lesson I try to pass on to my kids, was: Everybody makes mistakes. We’re not perfect. But you’ve got to take responsibility and you’ve got to be honest.
What was your first job as a cop?
I graduated from the University of Maryland in 1976. A buddy of mine had told me that Ocean City, Maryland, would hire summer cops. I applied and was a cop from Memorial Day to Labor Day in 1976. I will tell you, it taught me very little about how to be a police officer, but what it taught me was that this was the right profession for me. I loved every minute of it. I look back on it and think, Oh, my Lord, there were so many opportunities for me to do some very stupid things. I had two weeks’ training and I had a gun and a badge. I thank God every day that I knew what I didn’t know and I didn’t make too many mistakes.
What did you learn then that you still find useful today?
You get a lot of training to do a lot of different things, but there’s nothing more important than your ability to communicate effectively. I remember the first time I was dispatched to a domestic dispute. You’ve got a man and woman just screaming and hollering at each other. I’m a 21-year-old kid. I’ve never been married. I barely had a girlfriend. I didn’t know how to handle this stuff. But you know, it all came down to the ability to talk to people who are in crisis. Whether it is handling a domestic violence situation or a homeless guy who’s fallen down on the sidewalk because he’s drunk; whether it was someone dealing with mental health issues, or a crime victim who was just traumatized; the ability to effectively communicate is the most important tool a police officer has. I learned that quickly as a young cop. That kept me safe in so many situations that could have gotten out of control. I’m not getting dispatched to domestic disputes anymore, but I will tell you, I’m dealing with conflicts multiple times a day.