Police investigators may have to be reassigned to street duty to fill shifts left vacant by a hiring freeze imposed last week by County Executive Robert R. Neall.
The hiring freeze and Neall's order to department heads to submit no-growth budgets next year could also place in limbo those recruits being trained at the county's police academy.
Twenty-four of the 48 recruits are in the academy and are scheduled to graduate in March. Another class of 24 is slated to begin in April and finish in October.
"I don't think we are in jeopardy with the first class," said Deputy Chief Edgar Koch. "We have them in training and we need them."
However, county officials aren't as optimistic.
"Hiring of anyone is open to question," said Neall's deputy chief of staff David Almy of the March graduates. "It's a misunderstanding more than a difference between the administration and the police department."
Each recruit costs the county about $65,000 for training, salary, supplies and benefits.
County Councilman David Boschert, D-Crownsville, who would like to see the department grow by 50 officers in each of the next several fiscal years, believes money for the next group of recruits will be found.
"We desperately need the two academy classes," he said. "There are certain things that have to continue and public safety is one of them."
In addition to supplementing patrol units, the department is also counting on the new officers to help create an eight-member tactical unit to serve drug search warrants, Koch said.
"We just can't take people off the road for that," he said. "That's a dangerous situation and we can't just pull people from the street."
Police officials are concerned that hiring the first 24 recruits won't solve the manpower shortage and prevent the transfer of plain-clothes officers.
"We might have to shift people around to the property section or put people from (Criminal Investigations Division) back on the road," Koch said.
There are about 246 uniformed officers working the streets in the 550-officer department, Koch said. Patrol and narcotics enforcement are top priorities.
Detective John Ogle, the police union president, said officers are worried about Neall's hiring freeze.
"The tougher times get in the county, the higher crime rises and we will be needed," he said.
A review of staffing documents show other manpower gaps: * A 15-member foot patrol unit has just two officers, one of whom is working part-time as a drug education officer.
* The Drug Interdiction Unit began work about three weeks ago, with three instead of the seven members originally budgeted.
* Although roster sheets for the property section show 16 detectives working burglary cases, sources in the department say 11 detectives, including four officers taken from other units, are assigned. The case closure rate in the unit was about 40 percent in 1989, but this year it's 17 percent.
* The Vice Intelligence Unit has two detectives to investigate organized crimes and other undercover work; four years ago there were six.
* The Western and Southern patrol districts recently reassigned undercover narcotics detectives to patrol units to meet minimum staffing requirements.
When foot patrols were transferred from drug-ridden communities at the beginning of September, violence returned. On Nov. 4, a gunman opened fire inside a crowded dance hall in Meade Village and wounded four people. A few days later, a man standing on a corner in the Warfield Homes community was shot in the back.
Under-staffing has plagued the department for years. Police officials say they can't keep pace with manpower requirements because of the time it takes to find and train replacements for those who retire, quit or get fired.
"It takes an average of six months from the time an application is filled out to get an officer on the road," Koch said.
After passing a background check and taking the admissions test, officers spend 20 weeks at the academy and an additional 90 days on the road with an experienced officer.
Some police officials say manpower problems are being exacerbated by the department's attempts to gain national accreditation for the first time.
They say Chief George Wellham is trying to meet more than 900 standards, and that has led him to create special units by reassigning officers from understaffed units.
While department officials, who asked not to be named, acknowledged that specialized units such as the Drug Abuse Resistance Education benefit the community, they question how Wellham will staff them.
As with any department head, Wellham could be replaced by Neall, the new county executive.
Deputy Chief Robert Russell, Koch and Maj. William Donoho, commander of the Criminal Investigation Division, have been discussed within the department as candidates for Wellham's replacement.
Almy said Wellham has Neall's confidence.
"I think the response to that (replacement) would be the response to everyone, which is that they have Bob's full confidence until they decide to pursue other interests. If he doesn't approve them being there, they wouldn't be there, I guarantee you."