Howard Police and Public Ennui

September 24, 1991

The Ecker administration in Howard County has been advised that creation of a civilian review board to examine complaints against county police is unnecessary. But while a review board isn't needed, an advisory group concluded, the administration should gather some "citizen input" for police training, recruitment and interviewing methods.

The counsel hardly Solomonesque, neither profound nor awe-inspiring. But that's as specific as these advisers got. Their work, which began in January, was marred by polarized charges and countercharges of inattention by some task force members, poor attendance and some members being too hard or too soft on police. The response to a well-intentioned, albeit ineffective, survey of public opinion didn't help. The non-scientific survey showed that most of about 1,800 respondents were overwhelmingly satisfied with the county police. More significantly, some 15,000 countians who had been sent the survey with their water bills and in free newspapers didn't bother to reply.

Recently, 10 of the advisory group's original 22 members voted 6-4 against recommending a civilian review group. The few hard-core proponents of civilian review are predictably unhappy; opponents seem equally pleased. The middle ground consists of a considerable amount of public ennui.

The vote was hardly a mandate against such a review process, though. Nor should police view the vote as vindication. The truth is that without some questionable actions by police, this troublesome pot wouldn't have boiled over.

As so often occurs nationally, this Howard County outcry for civilian review of police actions stemmed from a couple of extraordinary events involving accusations of brutality and insensitivity to teens and minorities. A Columbia teen-ager involved in one case took his life in circumstances so bizarre that some still disbelieve what several official investigations have concluded. The county's NAACP unit gave the police a facetious "Dirty Harry Award," based on what it claimed was the department's negative attitude.

The new Ecker administration quickly changed police chiefs. Now, with this grandly named Citizens Advisory Council for Public Safety choosing to land on safe middle ground, it's time for those at the emotional extremes of this police vs. community struggle to drop the rhetoric. If nothing else, the police are on notice that Howard County's citizenry expects better of them and will not hesitate to speak out in the future.

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