True Blue

By Mary K. Zajac

Edward Gillespie ’04 (MLA) strolls through the hallways of 3500 Northern Parkway with the easy stride of a person who has found his calling. He passes glass-doored trophy cases and rows of lockers. He walks under banners touting “courage,” “honor,” and “integrity,” before heading up the stairs to his office. If not for the signs reading, “Secure all weapons prior to entering,” the West Baltimore building could still pass for the former Pimlico Middle School it was, rather than the Baltimore City Public Training Facility it has become.

Gillespie joined the Baltimore Police Department as a trainee in 2005. Today, he is a detective who teaches in-service courses to police officers. How does a former history teacher, poet, and aspiring novelist who earned a master’s degree in liberal arts end up as a police detective?

Gillespie grew up in suburban Philadelphia, attended George Washington University, and participated in Naval ROTC. His plans to become a marine, however, were derailed after a back injury at officer candidate school. Instead, the history major chose to become a teacher, eventually segueing into work in curriculum development. Then 9/11 intervened.

Gillespie remembers sitting in his office, cup of tea in hand, looking forward to his first class in JHU’s Master of Liberal Arts program, when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. After the second plane collided with the building, he thought to himself, “Okay, I need to make a plan. I’m going to get my master’s degree. I’m going to get my black belt. And I’m going to go get bad guys.”

After finishing his MLA degree in 2004, Gillespie entered the police academy the following year. His beats included Sandtown-Winchester and Penn North, where in 2015, during the uprising, he “watched the CVS go from being a building to a crater.” The work was challenging, eye-opening, and unlike anything he had ever done. He met drug addicts who demanded to be known by their names—rather than the sobriquet “junkie”—and witnessed former students in handcuffs. “Working on foot really did a lot for me,” says Gillespie. “Piece by piece, I started to understand the link between socioeconomics, culture, and education.”

It’s this kind of knowledge of everyday policing, coupled with a fervent devotion to the liberal arts, that Gillespie brings to the classroom. His classes—on topics ranging from ethics and police bias to hate groups—reference Plato, Emmanuel Kant, James Baldwin, and the film, Serpico. “It’s extremely important to me that officers see themselves in the context of humanism and liberalism with a capital ‘L,’” Gillespie explains.

“We are heirs to the debates people have had about ethics throughout history. A modern policeman has to look back at Ancient Greece, to the Enlightenment and the founding fathers … and say, ‘where do I fit into this?’”

Policing inevitably influences Gillespie’s off-work hours. It seeps into his poetry, like in his recently self-published collection, On the Later Addition of Sancho Panza, where he references stopping an undocumented worker driving a car with a broken window. And in 2017, Gillespie taught a class, The Police Officer and the Social Contract, through Johns Hopkins’ Odyssey program.

Ultimately, teaching police officers is where Gillespie’s heart is. The work is important, he says, and his officers benefit from it.

“I’m glad I held out and came to policing when I did,” he reflects. “When people said, ‘You might not want to do that,’ my wife’s aunt told me, ‘Ed, something good will come of this.’ And it really has.”