It was March 26, 1976. Russell Hamill was 14, and the quiet cul-de-sac where he lived in Rockville was filling up with police cars. One of his neighbors, John Devries, was a Montgomery County cop, and Devries’ best friend on the force, Capt. James E. Daly Jr., had been mortally wounded when he was shot by a fleeing bank robber. “I vividly remember that moment,” Hamill says. “The officers there together, just being there with each other and helping each other.”

The teenager had no epiphany that day, no revelation about his life’s work, but “just seeing that from a distance” left a lasting mark. “Part of the appeal of police work was the team concept,” he explains. “Coming up the way I did you always played on a team, and I was an altar boy for years.”

So it’s not surprising that almost 32 years later, Russ Hamill is still part of a team, still wearing a uniform, still devoted to a job where “helping each other” is what he does every day. Last summer, he became commander of Montgomery County’s second police district, headquartered in downtown Bethesda. And though this is the suburbs, not the city, the 120 officers under Hamill still have plenty to worry about: home break-ins, street robberies and, by far their biggest problem, thefts from automobiles. “There are real bad guys in this community,” Hamill told me one sunny morning as we sat in Cosi on Woodmont Avenue, a few blocks from his office. “People always say [criminals] come from D.C. and Prince George’s County. Well, no, we’ve got our homegrown bad guys here.”

Last fall, one of those “bad guys” was “just killing us,” Hamill recalls, “stealing stuff ” out of cars parked in Bethesda’s business district. Police had distributed a flyer with the suspected thief ’s picture, and one day a man in an office right next to the police station at Wisconsin and Montgomery looked out his window and saw a thief at work in the parking garage across the street. He called the cops and a dozen officers scrambled, including Hamill, who was just pulling up to the station. “I jump out of my car, like a fool, and start to chase him,” says the commander, who has added a few pounds since his days on the track team at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School. The suspect led his pursuers through the pedestrian tunnel under Wisconsin Avenue and, as Hamill tells the story: “As we’re running, I’m thinking, ‘I’m doing pretty good,’ because I’m keeping up with this young officer who’s with us.”

The suspect bolted through the Metro station and into one of the train tunnels, forcing the system to close for 90 minutes. He got away. Hamill found out that the young officer at his side was running on a broken foot, so keeping up with him was not such a great feat of endurance. Still, the story had a happy ending. D.C. cops eventually nabbed the man, who’s in jail facing 18 felony charges, and thefts in parking garages stopped. “So tell me who was doing it?” the commander says with a laugh. “In police work, we call that a clue.”

Russ Hamill was born to police work. His father was a senior administrative officer for Montgomery County who once ran the county jail, so the elder Hamill “always had a special place in his heart” for the police force. A great uncle was a career FBI agent; a neighbor served on the K-9 force; the Devries family down the block had nine relatives “on the job.” Religion played a role, as well. “We were your typical Irish Catholic family,” Hamill says. “They always harped upon respect for authority, respect for police officers, respect for the priests.” The nuns who taught him at St. Mary’s elementary school on Veirs Mill Road in Rockville and the Xaverian Brothers who ran Good Counsel (then in Wheaton, now in Olney) reinforced the message of respect and service. In fact, Hamill says, many of his fellow officers come from similar backgrounds, and that spawns fierce rivalries among graduates of rival Catholic high schools—Gonzaga, DeMatha and St. John’s, as well as Good Counsel.


After studying political science at the University of Maryland (he later got a law degree from Howard University), Hamill joined the county sheriff ’s office, which mainly assists the court system in guarding prisoners. He found the work dull, and only enjoyed himself when he was tracking down fugitives named in court indictments. After three years, he says, “I realized I wanted to catch bad guys,” and he switched to the county police. Meanwhile, he had met and married homicide detective Paula McDonald, the daughter of an assistant chief. The parents of five kids (ages 2 through 15), the Hamills are celebrating their 20th anniversary this year. Being married to another cop has a lot of advantages. “You understand what each [is] going through more easily than other people,” Russ Hamill says. But the demands of the job can also disrupt family life. Paula was assigned a murder case at 9:30 on Thanksgiving night. “I’m proud of her,” the commander says. “I don’t think I could do that job; there’s not a lot of happy things you deal with. But somebody’s got to speak for the dead, because otherwise there’s silence.”

Over the years, Hamill has posed as an addict buying drugs from hardcore criminals, but the most anxious moment for any cop is stopping a suspicious car. “When I was working undercover, I pretty much knew who I was dealing with, and you have a team with you,” he explains. “But if you pull over a car at two in the morning on Rockville Pike, up near Strathmore, and you’re by yourself, you don’t know what you have. There’s the danger.”

Today, the Hamills live in Boyds, a small town northwest of Gaithersburg. Like many police officers and other civil servants, the Hamills can’t afford to live closer to their work (some Montgomery County cops live as far away as southern Pennsylvania). But the Hamills still attend Mass at Russ’ old parish, St. Mary’s, and three of their kids are in school there (the oldest is at Good Counsel). The commander is instilling the virtues of teamwork in the next generation, coaching his kids in lacrosse, basketball and flag football. And “on the job,” one of his goals is to create a connection between the police and the people of Bethesda. The officers who patrol the central business district on bikes are a prime example, he says. “People love them, they’re effective, our crime rate’s pretty low here,” the commander says.


But there are always challenges, starting with growth. Base closings in the region will shift thousands of jobs to the Naval Medical Center and create new stresses on local services. And popular TV shows about cops create very unrealistic expectations. “CSI has not been a help,” says Hamill. “People think we can do DNA tests in about 15 minutes because David Caruso does it in Miami.” So the commander treasures encounters like one that happened the morning we met. He was coming out of a Starbucks, he says, “and this woman—I have no idea who she is—looks me right in the eye and says ‘thank you’. That woman has no idea the effect she had on me today, but I’ll tell you this: I needed it.”

Steve Roberts teaches political science and journalism at George Washington University. His latest book is My Fathers’ Houses.