Police Chief Resigns Before Department Evaluation Begins

Commission To Look Into Recent Controversies

January 30, 1991|By Michael James | Michael James,Staff writer

Police Chief Frederick W. Chaney abruptly resigned this week, just as County Executive Charles I. Ecker named a blue-ribbon commission toevaluate the Police Department and recommend improvements.

Chaney, who was expected to stay in his job until March 1, said he chose toresign a month early in light of disagreements with the Ecker administration and its decision to name the 21-member commission.

"I decided to bag it early," said Chaney, whose last day will be Friday. "The way things are going around here, with this new commission coming in to do who knows what, I just thought it was time to takea little sabbatical."

Maj. James N. Robey, the department's second in command, will take over as acting chief for 60 days, said Beverly Wilhide, Ecker's administrative assistant. Ecker is hopeful that a new chief will be named by Feb. 15, although that date is not a deadline, Wilhide said.

Chaney said he has a few "feelers" out to private industry, possibly with a security firm, but the Columbia residenthasn't landed a job yet.

The commission will have broad authorityand total access to police records as it evaluates the department, which faced several controversies in the past year. Its recommendations could go as far as a reorganization of the Police Department, county officials say.

Heading the commission will be former County Administrator William E. "Ned" Eakle, who said he has been instructed by Ecker to try to get to the bottom of the so-called police perception problem.

"No place is perfect, but I personally haven't heard manycomplaints other than what I keep reading in the newspaper," said Eakle, who is retired. "As for perceptions, they are like any others. They may or may not be true."

Commission members are a diverse group, with five coming from law-enforcement backgrounds. Originally, county officials said they expected to name only two law-enforcement representatives, a decision Chaney pointed to as a weakness.

The commission is not likely to have its first meeting until late February, Eakle said. No decision has been made on how often members will meet or whether subcommittees will be formed.

County officials said the council will report its findings by June 1 and then disband.

Although plans to create the commission have irked Chaney, the chief said the decision to appoint Eakle as the chairman "is one of the few gooddecisions I've seen the new administration make. He (Eakle) knows what's going on in the county."

Chaney, however, said he is still opposed to the commission in principle. He has argued that the in-depthlook at county police is unfair and unnecessary, especially since the department recently received accreditation from a national police association.

Commission members offer reassurance that they are not "witch hunting," as Columbia resident David Parrish put it.

"It sounds like we've got a pretty balanced group," he said. "In many ways, I have a lot of respect for the chief. But he has to realize that when things go wrong, steps have to be taken."

Parrish is a businessman and a former friend of Carl Jonathan Bowie, the 19-year-old Columbia resident who triggered a wave of public outcry after he was found hanged to death May 4 at an Oakland Mills High School backstop.

Many of Bowie's friends did not believe the teen-ager would have taken his own life. Bowie had charged three county police officers with brutality several months earlier, prompting community suspicion that police may have been involved in the death.

Although an internal affairs investigation charged the three officers with using excessive force in the earlier incident, a specially assigned state police investigator ruled out foul play in Bowie's death.

The county police investigation into Bowie's death was not thoughtfully carried out and proper procedures did not appear to be followed, Parrish said.

"I think we need to be asking, 'What happens when something goes awry?' In the case of (Bowie's) death, it seemed no one wanted to admit procedure wasn't followed," he said.

Other members have less specific agendas.

"I know there have been some perception problems with thedepartment. I assume we'll be focusing our attention on what can be done about those perceptions," said Mitchell Gordon, a former Baltimore City police officer named to the commission.

"From my own perspective, I've lived in Howard County since 1976, and I've never had any problems," said Gordon, a Baltimore attorney who lives in Columbia.

"Right now, I don't even know what the purpose is," said Michael D. Rexroad, the chief assistant state's attorney named to the commission.

Rabbi Mark Panoff of Temple Isaiah, one of three clergy members appointed, said he is bringing a tabula rasa, or clean slate, to his duties as a council member.

"I'm not coming into this with any preconceived notions. I want to be fresh and learn with everyone else," Panoff said. The clergy members should provide excellent representation due to their close relationships with county residents, he said.

Others named to the commission include the Rev. Anders Lunt and the Rev. David Rogers; Officer Michael Williams and Lt. Angus Park from the county police; NAACP member Sherman Howell; and Joan Crawford of the county Human Rights Commission.

Also on the commission are attorneys William Weston and Ronald Schimel, high school students Kerri Rutenberg and Dan Oppenheim, and Bernard Fonger, a retired federallaw-enforcement official.

Those appointed by County Council members include county residents Cynthia Blade, Ted Fagan, Augustus Haskins, Betty Snell and Thomas Larimore.

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