Criticism of Robey rises with Howard crime But supporters praise police chief's leadership

April 28, 1996|By Ed Heard | Ed Heard,SUN STAFF

Howard County police Chief James N. Robey wants things the way they used to be, and his critics say that's part of his problem.

He remembers a time before widespread development replaced the open fields and rural roads -- a time when the only late-night cup of coffee could be found at a doughnut shop on U.S. 1 in neighboring Laurel.

And now, as his Police Department tries to stave off an increase in violent crime in one of the country's wealthiest counties, Chief Robey finds himself under fire for everything from youth problems to police efforts to close massage parlors.

Gone are the days when the main complaints to Howard police were about domestic disputes and drunks. Now, robberies and burglaries are skyrocketing. Juveniles carry guns and steal cars. Frightening, high-profile crimes -- such as the shootings of two Scan furniture warehouse employees last year -- go unsolved.

"There's been a change in values," said the chief, 55, who grew up in the community of Daniels near Patapsco Valley State Park. He now lives with his wife, Janet, in Ellicott City. "You see the breakdown of the family, drugs. Commitment to the community, religion -- it's not there anymore."

Chief Robey has his supporters. "He's a leader," said Major Wayne Livesay, deputy chief for operations. "He doesn't just sit back and wait for problems to come."

But as Howard's crime rate rises, critics within and outside the department say his administration is like a rocking horse -- a lot of motion without progress.

They say the chief is inappropriately trying to use small-town management in a big, bustling county. In particular, they say community-oriented programs started and pushed by the chief improve public relations but don't prevent crime.

"It's all about image," said Pfc. Ricky Johnson, a patrol officer who used to be part of the tactical squad. He and other officers, who refused to be named, said county police should be spending more time investigating crimes.

Residents and business owners long have said that more police officers -- there are now 327 -- would help reduce crime.

"I don't feel safe," said William Vaughan of North Laurel, a frequent Howard public safety advocate. "We need more police officers. Even the officers I speak to say so."

Even such citizens as Jenny Beach of Glenelg -- who say Howard police are "doing a wonderful job" battling crime -- are concerned about the scarcity of roving police officers, particularly in the less densely populated western part of the county.

"Most effort is put in the Columbia area, and the rest of us suffer for it," said Ms. Beach, a member of the department's Citizens Advisory Council. "It's not enough."

When Chief Robey joined Howard's 32-member force in 1966 -- a year with no homicides and only four robberies -- it was not unusual for one police officer to patrol the entire county all night without encountering trouble.

"We were all energetic," recalled Sheriff Michael A. Chiuchiolo, then an officer who served as Chief Robey's supervisor in the Criminal Investigation Division in the late 1960s through the early 1970s. "Jim was a good cop."

Officer Robey rose through the department's rank structure swiftly: lieutenant in 1977, captain in 1980 and major in 1981. He earned a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from the University of Maryland in 1979 and graduated from the FBI's National Academy the same year. In 1985, he received a master's degree in administration and management from Hood College.

In 1991, newly elected County Executive Charles I. Ecker promoted him to become Howard County's eighth police chief after Fred Chaney resigned. Chief Robey has said he expects to retire in about two years.

But the Howard County that he sees today is vastly different from the county of his rookie year.

Its population of 222,804 is 4.6 times larger than in 1966. Violent crimes -- including murder, rape, robbery, burglary, assault and vehicle theft -- have risen from 737 in 1966 to 9,217 last year. Juvenile arrests rose from 102 to 1,736.

Meanwhile, the Howard department has grown by a factor of 10, from 32 sworn officers to 327.

Chief Robey says county police are doing a good job but `D acknowledges they could do better. He said building on community-oriented policing policies -- the bedrock policy of his administration -- would help police keep pace with increasing crime.

As part of these community-police efforts, the department has created two satellite offices in public housing complexes where police can mingle with residents.

And Thursday, Chief Robey announced details of a long-promised initiative to combat youth crime and the first signs of some youth gang activity -- primarily by rotating two officers full time among the county's high schools.

Chief Robey's boss, Mr. Ecker, is his biggest supporter: "I'm pleased with what he does and how he does it. He's willing to try new things."

But the chief complains that -- no matter what police do -- it seems it is never enough.

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