Commission Surprised At Low Turnout To Evaluate Police

April 28, 1991|By Michael Jame | Michael Jame,Staff writer

A commission formed to evaluate the county police department got little chance to hear public feedback when only 10 residents showed up at open forums in Ellicott City and Elkridge.

The poor public showings on Wednesday -- commission members outnumbered the audience by almost 2-to-1 at both locations -- surprised county officials, who havebeen told that police here suffer from a "perception problem."

"If people aren't happy with the police department, they sure aren't saying a lot about it," said William E. "Ned" Eakle, chairman of the 21-member Citizens' Advisory Council for Public Safety.

CountyExecutive Charles I. Ecker appointed the commission in January to evaluate whether recent criticisms of police by the NAACP and some county residents were justified. Howard police had been labeled in a 1990NAACP report as brutal and "running amok."

Sherman Howell, a member of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he was surprised by the lack of public comment on the police issue. Howell serves as the NAACP representative onthe advisory council.

The recent hiring of new county police chief James N. Robey, who comes with strong local ties, may have something to do with criticism dying down, Howell said. "I think people have a lot of confidence in Robey," he said.

Police figures show that 16 excessive force complaints were filed against officers in 1990, oneof which led to criminal charges against officers. So far in 1991, no excessive force complaints have been filed.

Commission members are hoping to hear from a larger crowd next month during the second round of forums, which they may advertise more extensively.

Wednesday's forums were advertised recently in display ads and public noticesin area newspapers. Eakle said newspaper coverage has also mentionedthe meetings.

"Maybe there's something else we can try and do to get people to come for the next public forums," Eakle said. "If someone's got a gripe, we're here to listen to it. But right now, it lookslike even if someone has a gripe, they're not bothering to come out."

Eakle said residents are welcome to speak freely at the meetings. For those unable to attend, telephone comments may be made between 7 and 9 p.m. May 16 by calling 313-3030.

So far three residents have sent their comments to the council by letter, and each "offered their support for police," Eakle said.

Robey said he felt public attitude is in the police department's favor. "I wasn't surprised at thelack of participation at the meetings," he said. "Most people think we do a commendable job."

A forum is scheduled for May 8 at LaurelWoods Elementary School, and another is set for May 9 at the First Baptist Church of Guilford in Jessup.

All five people at the forum in the George Howard building expressed criticism of county police, saying that officers had been rude and unprofessional to them.

Sandra Keyser, the mother of two Columbia teen-agers who filed police brutality charges against three county officers after a January 1990 incident, said police had shown "a lack of compassion" when notifying her that one of her sons had apparently committed suicide last May.

The son, Carl Jonathan Bowie, was found hanged to death at an OaklandMills High School athletic field backstop. Keyser said the county police officer who came to her Columbia home "started screaming at me in my front hall."

"When someone is told of a death, you need some support there," she said. "Instead, he asked me to come to the policestation to look at the rope."

Another county resident, Claudia Hollywood, said she felt that police have a negative attitude toward Columbia teen-agers. Hollywood said her teen-age daughter and her friends have been harassed by police. Hollywood said police typically think of Columbia teens as "rich kids" and have been disrespectful to them.

"Police here have a brute-force mentality and they need to showa little compassion," Hollywood said.

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