Panel Gives Police High Marks But Wants Neighborhood 'Beats'

Task Force Satisfied With Police Policy

October 06, 1991|By Michael James | Michael James,Staff writer

Howard County's police department is basically sound and needs no major policy changes, a citizens task force concluded this week.

TheCitizen's Advisory Council for Public Safety, formed to evaluate thestrengths and weaknesses of the police force, presented its final reports Wednesday and will now pass them on to County Executive CharlesI. Ecker.

While no sweeping reforms are proposed, the council is recommending that a community policing program, which would put officers into neighborhood beats, be implemented and that internal affairs investigations be handled more quickly.

Ecker appointed the 22-member task force last February shortly before he called for the resignation of former police chief Frederick W. Chaney. At the time, some complained that county police suffered from a "negative perception problem."

"I had no preconceived notions about what the council members would be looking at," Ecker said. "I just wanted them to report what they saw."

Ecker said he has not yet reviewed the reports from the council's seven individual subcommittees but hopes to do so within the nextweek.

One of the problems identified by the council's internal affairs subcommittee is that the department's two internal investigators are overworked and need help to review complaints in a more timely fashion.

A full-time civilian employee, a legal adviser, and a third investigator should be added to the office, which is charged with investigating all complaints against individual police officers, a subcommittee report suggested.

The subcommittee recommended that allinternal affairs investigations be concluded within 30 days. Currently, investigations can take several months to complete.

"They're understaffed, and they have no clerical help," said Mitchel M. Gordon,a Columbia attorney and a former Baltimore City Police officer who served on the subcommittee. "They can't investigate. It's wrong."

Lt. Gregory R. Scott, who heads the internal affairs unit, said the average internal investigation takes between three and five months. "We're just short of bodies," he said.

Last month, the council voted against recommending a civilian review board that would oversee the internal affairs office, a decision that was assailed by some county officials and residents.

County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, who criticized the council for not recommending the idea, said he is drafting legislation that would create a civilian review board.

Gordon said a speedy internal affairs process could be key to reversing some negative perceptions of citizens who feel that police shouldn't be allowed to handle complaints internally.

If the investigation does go beyond 30 days, the complainant should be called or sent a letter explaining why the process is taking longer, the subcommittee suggested.

"If a citizen doesn't hear anything for three or four months, they think the police aren't doing anything," Gordon said.

David Parrish, a Columbia businessman who served on the subcommittee looking into the use of force, said he interviewed 32 citizens who said they were upset by rude treatment of police officers.

Many said they felt "general feelings of helplessness and fright" about the policeforce, Parrish said.

But several of the people Parrish interviewed, most of whom refused to be identified in the subcommittee reports,"admitted being rude to the officer -- sometimes severely," Parrish said.

A large number of the complainants did not understand the internal affairs process and were confused about the department's investigations of its own officers, he said.

Parrish recommended that the department have more thorough written descriptions of the complaint process. Those descriptions should be readily available to anyone wishing to make a complaint, he said.

The council also will recommend that a community policing program be established to improve the image of police within the community. Community policing -- already under study by the department -- would put "beat cops" back into local neighborhoods.

Sherman Howell, a member of the National Associationfor the Advancement of Colored People who served on the council, said the Police Department satisfactorily passed the council's review. But, he added, "there's still a lot more work to be done."

Howell said one of the department's chief concerns is to improve its minorityrepresentation. Currently, 36, or 12 percent, of the force's 297 officers are black, Howell said.

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