Robey Gets Caught in TV Headlights

COMMENT

April 16, 1995|By KEVIN THOMAS

Howard County Police Chief James Robey won't be winning any Academy Awards in the near future.

His recent performance on the ABC news show "PrimeTime Live" will hereafter be known as one of the more embarrassing moments in county police history.

The segment focused on an allegedly botched rape case. But the real revelations seemed to come with Chief Robey's display of a startling insensitivity to the victim and little or no appreciation of the public's likely reaction.

The facts of the case are very much in dispute.

Chief Robey feels he was railroaded by "PrimeTime Live," his comments lifted out of context and distorted.

But that goes only so far in explaining the chief's shortcomings.

He was apparently beginning to see the error of his ways when he spoke to a Sun reporter last week, after the broadcast.

"We care," he said. "We want victims of sexual assault to know we care. We treat every victim of a crime with as much compassion as we can."

Unfortunately, that was not at all the message he was conveying earlier on national television.

Seeming a bit like a deer caught in the headlights of a truck, Chief Robey's apparent attempt to put on a brave front backfired badly.

It was a truck, Chief Robey.

While I can certainly understand the chief's wanting to defend his department, his failure to realize that his remarks would be interpreted as callous and stupid is beyond my comprehension.

The case literally screamed out its need to be handled with kid gloves.

The details are as follows:

In 1992, a 19-year-old woman told police she had been abducted from her west county home and raped by an unknown assailant.

As part of the investigation, police asked the woman to take a lie-detector test, which she did.

When she apparently failed, the case began to take on new dimensions.

The victim and her family say the police stopped investigating the case, while police insist the investigation continued.

It was only later, after the same man raped another woman, that he was apprehended.

He confessed to both rapes.

But when asked whether he felt he should apologize to the first victim for failing to believe her account, Chief Robey responded no.

And then to rub salt in the wound, he added that if presented with the same case today, he would still believe the examiner who administered the lie-detector test rather than the victim.

One could almost see the mouths dropping all over the county as this interview aired.

Make no mistake, "PrimeTime Live" did not present an exemplary report.

The report asserted, apparently falsely, that the department had a fingerprint from the original crime scene which it failed to run through a statewide computer system listing known felons.

While "PrimeTime Live" insisted that a computer search would have turned up a match implicating the man who was later arrested, police contend that the print they had was incomplete and could not be satisfactorily matched.

Also, police say that after the arrest, the partial print was compared with the suspect's and did not appear to match.

But if that was not the smoking gun that "PrimeTime Live" thought it had, this case had other damaging aspects.

According to the girl's father, after the polygraph test, he had to pressure a police detective to order a composite sketch of the suspect drawn. At one point the detective, apparently exasperated by the father's persistence, asked flippantly how many rape cases he had investigated.

L That totally uncalled-for comment alone deserved an apology.

Even in his interview with The Sun, Chief Robey refused to offer an apology, although he elaborated in a way that he had failed to in the broadcast.

"I can't apologize to the victim for doing our job," he said. "Am I sorry? Absolutely. . . . But we did not do anything wrong."

Some would argue that there was a mistake, and Chief Robey simply doesn't get it.

Some states outlaw the use of polygraph tests in rape cases. The Maryland General Assembly, though, has refused to pass such legislation two years in a row.

Chief Robey could act unilaterally and stop the practice in Howard County, but so far he hasn't.

If Chief Robey wants to show that he gets it now, he'll rethink that position.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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