Howard County Police Chief James N. Robey last week defended the department against accusations of misconduct, saying police work does not lend itself to a "no-complaint environment."
Robey told a 20-member panel studying police-community relations that although he wishedthere were no complaints, the 211 allegations of "inappropriate action" by officers last year represent less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the 122,000 "documented contacts" police made with the public lastyear.
Documented contacts include issuing speeding tickets, Robey said.Contacts involving some sort of citation make up one-half to one-third of all police meetings with the public, he said.
"Our goal is that people are treated fairly," Robey told the Citizen Advisory Council for Public Safety at its meeting Wednesday. "People may not like it" when they are stopped by a police officer, he said, "but they can be treated fairly."
Robey responded to some complaints the councilhad heard during recent hearings. He said, for example, that the department has three Hispanic officers who can translate into Spanish over the police radio as necessary.
Robey also said the fact that 37of the department's 297 officersare African-Americans "speaks well of the hiring effort." While the percentage is not as high as he wouldlike it to be, he said, "many other departments would like to have that ratio."
He discounted criticism that officers routinely place their hands on undrawn guns while approaching stopped motorists. He noted that police made arrests for 224 weapons violations in the past 12 months. Many of the arrests involved automobiles, including two inthe last month.
"Guns are on the street in Howard County, and people will kill a cop," Robey said. "I will not jeopardize the safety of our officers" by requiring them to refrain from resting their handson their weapons during routine traffic stops.
When Robey took over as police chief in February, the department was under intense scrutiny.
The state National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had named Howard among the five worst counties in the state in terms of police brutality complaints and gave it a dubious "Dirty Harry" award.
The department also was criticized for its handling of an investigation of the death of a Columbia teen-ager found hangedfrom a high school backstop.
Friends and family of the teen doubted his death was self-inflicted. But investigations by state police and a grand jury found no contrary evidence.
A federal grand jury is investigating the incident.
In a closed session Wednesday, Robeydiscussed the department's internal investigation of complaints against specific officers.
Prior to Robey's remarks, council Chairman and former County Executive William E. Eakle shared preliminary results from community surveys that had been mailed with water bills and distributed at shopping centers.
Most of the 830 people who had responded were at least 41 years old. Only 7 percent were between the ages of 21 and 30.
Altogether, 63 percent said they felt safe or very safe in their neighborhood, and only 5 percent felt unsafe or very unsafe. The remainder, 32 percent, said they felt fairly safe.
Countywide perceptions paralleled community perceptions. A majority, 58 percent, said they feel very safe or safe in the county as a whole, and only 4 percent said they felt unsafe or very unsafe. The remainder, 38 percent, said they felt fairly safe.
Seventy-two percent of the respondents rated the Police Department as having a high or very high level of competence, but 12 percent said the competence level waslow to very low.
Eighty-five percent said officers' attitudes ranged from good to excellent, and 15 percent said it was fair to poor.
Council Vice Chairman Sherman Howell said middle-class communitiestraditionally have "a high level of acceptance of a certain amount of impunity relating to the police department -- 'Watch my property and you'll get some excess freedom' -- and that the responses reflect those attitudes."
Despite apparent overall satisfaction with the department, there is "a growing perception in the community that there must be some independent investigating process, some external scrutiny" of citizen complaints, Howell said.
"Obviously there is a lot of work (yet to be done by the safety council) on the whole process ofinternal investigations and the use of force issue," Howell said, aswell as dealing with police training, education, personnel practicesand computer techniques.
Howell, who has reviewed 15 studies of other police departments since joining the council in January, said heis developing 300 questions he believes the council should address in its findings.
He expects the council to continue working at least through September.