A task force aiming to get to the root of perceived problems within the county police force is asking the public for advice on what can be done to bolster the department's image.
The Citizens' Advisory Council for Public Safety, a 21-member delegation with broad authority, will be conducting two public forums within the next month to hear citizens' opinions about county police -- and those opinions may affect the department's future.
County police have taken hard knocks in the last year from some residents and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which branded the department with a "Dirty Harry Award" for its perceived hostility toward the public. But police have steadily cried foul to the charges, saying the perception is false.
Eight weeks into their study, commission members are interviewing excessive force complainants and have established two subcommittees on internal affairs and use of force policies, areas that some members said may need an overhaul.
But for police officials, many of whom have complained in recent months that they are fed up with what they call unsubstantiated allegations, the commission's review is being met with optimism and acceptance.
"I've issued memos to all my department heads saying that the commission is to get full and complete cooperation in answering any questions they may have," said newly appointed police chief James N. Robey.
"I want to see these 'perception' problemsbrought to an end," Robey said. "We welcome the commission's findings."
False or not, the perception is there and police will have a prob
lem ridding themselves of the image, said Mitchell Gordon, a retired Baltimore City police officer who serves on the citizens' council.
"There's definitely a perception among teen-agers that cops here have a problem with youth," said Gordon, a Columbia resident. "Whether that perception is real or not, it certainly needs to be lookedat. But we need to hear from people to know what steps to take."
Commission members, appointed in late January by County Executive Charles I. Ecker, are assigned to investigate all areas of the police department. A final report will be submitted to Ecker in September.
High on the list of Ecker's concerns is why the department has developed a bad image among teens.
Dan Oppenheim, a junior at CentennialHigh School who is one of two teen-agers serving on the committee, agreed that many of his friends "don't have a good feeling about the police."
"Teens tend to look at the cops here as the bad guys," Oppenheim said. "But it's hard to say whether it's any worse in Howard County than it is anywhere else. I think that's a common assumption teens have of police."
To bring the two groups together, Robey said the department is working on several ideas, including a foot-patrol program at county high schools in which officers would stop in and eattheir lunch with students.
David Parrish, who serves on the use of force subcommittee of the council, said the image may be rooted in a punishment problem.
"I'm concerned that in a metropolitan countywith documented excessive force complaints, all we do is talk about a perception problem," Parrish said. "We are also talking about reality. And yet, it is a rare moment indeed when an officer is ever charged."
Robey, who took over as chief last month, defended the department's internal affairs division as being "extremely fair" and invited the commission to speak with any of the people who filed a complaint last year.
Police figures show that of the 16 excessive force complaints filed against officers in 1990, only one led to charges against officers. So far in 1991, no excessive force complaints have beenfiled.
Most recently, a county police internal affairs investigation ruled Thursday that a brutality complaint against a tactical officer was not sustained.
The complaint alleged the officer had put aLaurel man into a headlock after raiding his house during a drug raid.
Parrish said a tighter discipline procedure for officers may help to ease some of the department's credibility problems.
Parrish,a Columbia businessman and a former friend of Carl Jonathan Bowie, the 19-year-old Columbia resident who was found hanged to death May 4 after filing an excessive force complaint against county police, saidhe is not "on a witch hunt."
"I just think some things may need to be changed. I mean, what does it take to charge an officer with excessive force? Does it take a videotape?"
Police ruled out foul play in Bowie's death, but the three officers involved in his January 1990 arrest were charged with excessive force by an internal affairs investigation for their conduct during the arrest. No other brutality complaints were filed against police last year.
The commission has broken into seven subcommittees, two of which are investigating use of force and internal affairs policies. The public forums are scheduled for April 24 and May 8.
"We would like to hear from people who have had direct contact with police officers," said commission chairman William E. "Ned" Eakle. "We want to let everyone have their say in whether they think their police department is good or bad."