Bum Rap in Howard?

November 26, 1990

Life isn't getting any easier for Howard County Police Chief Frederick W. Chaney.

First there was the death by hanging of a teen-ager who lodged a brutality complaint against police early this year. Then, the NAACP slapped Howard with a "Dirty Harry Award", ranking it among the five worst jurisdictions in the state in police brutality.

And finally, two Laurel families claimed they had been terrorized by masked Howard County police who burst into their homes in the early morning hours in a futile drug search.

Is Howard's police force "running amok" due to a "clear lack of leadership," as the NAACP claims? Chief Chaney contends the department is getting a bum rap. He admits to a few over-zealous officers, but says the flood of criticism is unwarranted.

There were 15 undue-force complaints last year out of 5,231 arrests -- hardly a compelling case for rampant brutality. Yet the number of such incidents has grown rapidly -- from 11 in 1988 to 13 in just the first half of this year.

Howard is no longer a rural outpost; the nature and scope of its crime reflects this. Drug arrests, for example, have grown from 723 in 1988 to 1,007 last year. The county also suffers from a dearth of organized activity for teen-agers, who make the loudest noise about heavy-handed police treatment.

Howard's police department must adjust to the rigors of a more urban, densely populated service area. To its credit, the department is taking pains to train new recruits and veterans in the proper way to deal with the public. It is also meeting with school administrators and students to try to enhance its image with teens.

These efforts are commendable -- and necessary. Though the number of complaints of police misbehavior is still modest, public dissatisfaction is on the rise. The numbers only hint at how the public perceives its protectors. Many incidents go unreported, leaving only a sour taste with the unfortunate citizen.

The current outcry over police brutality in Howard has hurt the county's progressive image, not to mention morale within its law-enforcement agency. This unfortunate situation can be quickly reversed by acknowledging the problem and taking steps to correct it -- something Howard appears to be doing. The county's police department should make sure that it avoids the pitfalls that occurred in neighboring Prince George's County, where the police department is now learning that a bad public image is easy to get and hard to shake.

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