New Chief Of Police Takes Over

A Rookie 24 Years Ago, Robey's Grown With County

March 03, 1991|By Michael James | Michael James,Staff writer

In 1967, Officer James N. Robey, a 26-year old rookie who had just quit his job at C. R. Daniels mill, became the first cop to patrol a barren place that someone wanted to build into a town called Columbia.

He knew little about it, only that someday it was to be a sprawling suburban community. But during the first patrols on his new beat, the calls in the area were typical of the rest of the county: "Domestic arguments, drunks, loud music, bar fights and loose horses," he recalls.

"Little Patuxent Parkway was just a dirt road back then, and I think they were just beginning to build a few model homes," says Robey,50. "Now, I drive through there and see all these industrial parks and village centers and houses, and I just can't believe how much it'schanged."

Howard County has changed, and so has Robey. He is no longer a basketball player; he is a golfer. He is no longer a renegademill towner from Daniels; he is a middle-class resident of Ellicott City's Safari Court. And he is no longer an officer; he is the chief.

Robey was named to the job Tuesday by County Executive Charles I.Ecker, who is hoping the in-house selection may be the answer to dealing with the department's so-called "perception problem" that plagued former chief Frederick W. Chaney to the point of resignation.

The police department Robey joined nearly 25 years ago has grown from 33 to 300 officers, and Columbia is its main place of business. Baltimore and Washington are more a part of Howard County now, and so are drugs and armed robberies.

But, realistically, Robey says, "The domestic fights, drunks, loud music, bar fights and loose horses are still as much a part of our business today as they were back then. Maybeeven more so," he says with a sigh of frustration.

Robey grew up in the village of Daniels, just north of Ellicott City on the Patapsco River. His entire family worked in the mill, but by the time he was25, "I started to get bored," he said.

Some of his classmates from Howard High School, from which he graduated in 1959, had signed on as county police officers. One day, during a snowstorm, he asked themabout how he could join the department.

He readily admits that atthe time, "I wasn't chief material," or at least his friends didn't think so. But police needed help -- often, many shifts were staffed by one man -- and Robey decided to give the job a shot.

He got his feet wet early when he was first on the scene of a fatal plane crash at what is now the Wilde Lake Village Center, and within two years hewas named Officer of the Year.

Through the years, Robey was regarded as the "cop's cop," says Lt. G. Wayne Livesay, an 18-year county police veteran who has worked under Robey through most of his career.

"He formed our first SWAT team in the mid-70s, and he worked right alongside us even though he was the supervisor," Livesay said. "He was a tough guy, but he knew how important it was to be smart, too."

Robey, who has served as major of the department since 1981, was Chaney's second in command throughout the former chief's three-year administration. Chaney, an appointee of former executive Elizabeth Boboand an outsider to the department, took considerable criticism from the police union for his perceived lack of personal commitment.

Also hurting Chaney in 1990 was criticism from the National Associationfor the Advancement of Colored People, which claimed his leadership was ineffective in a department that was "running amok." Howard police were given a dubious "Dirty Harry Award" by the NAACP for what it called a severe brutality problem.

"I wish him luck in that job. Itcan get to be quite thankless," said Chaney, who still lives in Columbia. "He's got a different philosophy than I have, and we didn't always agree. But I think he's a good choice."

Robey agrees that he and the former chief have differing philosophies, most notably when itcomes to protocol. Chaney, who one union official called "a collegecop," was a stickler for formal procedure and took criticism for remaining aloof from rank-and-file officers.

"For one thing, I don't intend to be sitting at my desk promptly at 7:15 every morning," Robey said. "I might go out and talk to some of the guys on patrol. I might have an informal meeting with officers or citizens at Ma's Kettle in savage. I don't think I should be in the office all day."

His loose but direct style has already won him the support of the local branch of the NAACP and from the police union, which criticized not only Chaney but also his predecessor, Paul Rappaport.

"We feel he's in there punching for us," said Dale Hill, the union president. Robey asked to speak at Thursday night's union meeting, the first such attempt by a county police chief, Hill said.

"We had 118 members at the meeting, and I think he went over very well," Hill said. "We're nottalking about a college cop here. He's a chief that's from within the ranks, who hasn't forgotten about what it's like to be out there doing the job."

Another problem Robey is faced with tackling is Ecker's proposed layoffs of 50 police employees, a situation he says will drastically affect such community services such as the DARE program. Hill, however, said that he has high hopes for Robey's ability to curb the layoffs.

Robey said it won't be easy. "I'm going to tell Mr. Ecker that I think it would really hurt us to lay off so many people," he said. "If we have to do it, then we have to do it. But I won't like it."

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