Police Chief Says His Firing Is Political, Blasts Ecker

Citizen Review Board Sends Wrong Message, Chaney Says

January 13, 1991|By Michael James | Michael James,Staff Writer

Outgoing police chief Frederick W. Chaney blasted County Executive Charles I. Ecker for deciding to hire a new police chief and establishing a police review board that he says is unwisely scant of police.

Ecker is a "hatchet man," Chaney said, and the review board's task to study the entire police department "gives the flavor that there's something significantly wrong. I don't think that's the case whatsoever."

The Citizens' Advisory Council for Public Safety, whose members will be named this week, will set its own agenda and have broad authority, including complete access to police department records, said Beverly Wilhide, Ecker's administrative assistant. Even far-reaching measures, such as personnel or policy changes, could be suggested by thecouncil, she said. Board members also will conduct interviews with police and citizens as they see fit.

However, the council will not conduct public hearings and will remain largely confidential since "some of this information isn't the kind of stuff that people will wantto divulge publicly."

The 15-member board, which Wilhide said will have a powerful voice in Ecker's decision making, will include people from business, political and legal circles. Ecker also is expectedto name at least one police officer to the board. The group's findings will be detailed in a report to Ecker due June 1, after which the group will disband.

But by creating the task force, Chaney said, Ecker is "sending the wrong message" to county residents. While the Ecker administration has consistently reinforced to the public that thepolice department is the victim of a perception problem, Chaney said, the review board sends a different signal.

"Now he (Ecker) is turning around to say that the whole department needs to be investigated," Chaney said. "It seems to me he and his people think there are quite a few more problems than just a perception problem."

Chaney's open criticism is in stark contrast to the tight-lipped reputation that characterized his three-year tenure as chief. Now, he said, he is "upset that my department is being called into question for reasons Mr. Ecker is unwilling to explain." Chaney said he believes he was fired for political reasons.

But Ecker, who informed Chaney last month that he must resign by March 1, said his goal is simply to restore credibility to the police department.

"I think we have a good police department, but there is certainly a perception out there that there is something wrong. And I believe perception is reality," Ecker said.

The lack of other law enforcement members on the council irkedChaney, though. And he pointed to the recent accreditation the department garnered from a national police association as proof that county police live up to reputable standards.

"We've made our mark as a fine police department," said Chaney. "I really don't know what his(Ecker's) people are after. I told him the day he fired me that I felt his group was doing a hatchet job."

Ecker, who plans to name a new police chief by Feb. 15, has not advertised the position. He saidhe has received about 25 to 30 applications for the job, and said there are no preferred candidates yet.

"We're looking for people both inside and outside the department, and at this point, I don't thinkwe need to advertise," Ecker said.

The advisory council, Ecker said, is the best way to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the department that the new chief will be taking on.

Among several blows to the department in the last year was the dubious "Dirty Harry Award" given by the NAACP, which named Howard County among the five worst counties in the state regarding police brutality complaints.

Chaney and his officers also came under fire after the May 4 death of Carl Jonathan Bowie, a Columbia teen-ager found hanged from a high school backstop several months after he claimed that county police beat him during a misdemeanor arrest. Although friends and family of Bowie cried foul play, a grand jury found no evidence of it.

The negative perceptions of Howard County police have not found their way into the law enforcement community, said Baltimore County Police Chief Cornelius J. Behan, who served on the search committee three years ago that eventually recommended Chaney for chief.

Many of the departmentprocedures that will be scrutinized by Ecker's advisory council werealready reviewed recently as part of the police accreditation the department sought, he said.

"I would tend to have more faith in a report released by seasoned law enforcement officials than I would a report put out by people unfamiliar with police work," he said.

However, Dale L. Hill, president of the county police union, said he welcomes the committee and is optimistic that it may help turn around a negative public image of police.

"Like it or not, we've had some problems going on," Hill said. "I think a lot of it has come from miscommunication between us and the public. I think an advisory council gives us a chance to ask questions and turn things around."

Ecker said forming the commission is in no way an indictment of the police department.

"It could be that they'll come out with a report that says absolutely nothing needs to be changed," he said.

Members of the advisory council will include a citizen from each of the five county council districts and one member each from the county Bar Association, clergy, high school student body, business community, police union, and state's attorney's office.

Ecker said he also expects to appoint about four other representatives, including a county police lieutenant or captain.

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