Robey readies for '98 race Election: The former police chief, who retired Friday, says that after 31 years in Howard, he wants to become county executive.

January 11, 1998|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

In 1966, James N. Robey, a listless apprentice machinist, looked out his textile factory window and saw his future -- a Howard County police cruiser.

Three decades later, Robey once again found himself looking out a window, eyeing the world from his fourth-floor office as Howard County police chief, a position he has held for seven years.

As Robey recalls that moment two months ago, he was looking for a new challenge. He found one: running for county executive.

"I had a feeling like, been there, done that," Robey said recently from behind his large desk in an office decorated with autographed baseballs and other trinkets.

"Howard County has seen a significant change," Robey said. "I've been out in the community for 31 years. I understand what the citizens need."

For Robey, the county executive's race has the same appeal as that police car in 1966.

He was 25 then, leaving the C. R. Daniels factory, where his father and grandfather worked, to join a force of 30-some officers patrolling the rural, 251-square-mile county. He chopped wood and painted houses for extra money.

When he retired Friday, he was overseeing a force of 328 that protects the fast-growing county's 231,000 citizens.

Robey, 56, will first appear on the ballot in the September Democratic primary, where he is expected to face no serious opposition in his quest to become county executive. He then would face a Republican candidate -- Charles C. Feaga or Dennis R. Schrader, both members of the Howard County Council -- in the November general election.

The Republicans certainly will zero in on Robey's lack of experience outside the Police Department.

"He was an excellent chief, had a good personality, good integrity," said Republican Councilman Darrel E. Drown. "But he's too one-dimensional to be a good county executive. He doesn't have the grasp of the whole community, like the other two candidates."

Though not a politician, Robey has had plenty of practice working crowds. As the most public police chief in recent memory, he has attended an average of 120 community meetings a year.

Working a crowd

The other night, he stood in a room crowded with elderly residents of the Owen Brown Place apartment complex. He joked, used statistics to show that crime was decreasing, then joked some more.

The room broke into applause twice. The first time was when Robey promised to bring a drug-sniffing dog to inspect the building's hallways.

"We love dogs, bring him by," one resident said. The others laughed. Robey knew they'd love the idea of a vicious yet cute dog roaming their halls.

Applause came again when a woman announced that Robey was running for county executive.

Robey, his gray hair perfectly parted, a flowered tie resting on his slight paunch, spoke like a practiced politician.

"We can't fight crime without your help," he said. "We're here to see what you need."

By the end of the meeting, residents were lining up to become police liaisons.

Robey often extols the virtues of community-oriented policing, of putting officers in daily contact with residents, of changing the emphasis of policing from writing tickets and making arrests to solving problems. Many officials say that has been the crux of Robey's administration.

Although some in law enforcement criticized community policing soft on crime when it was introduced, such practices now are considered a major factor in solving chronic crime -- from New York to the Village of Long Reach.

Community policing programs in Howard include bicycle patrols, assigning officers to watch specific neighborhoods and putting police liaisons in public schools.

Last year, the department won a federal grant that paid plainclothes officers to patrol Long Reach village after it was designated a "crime hot spot."

'He returns your calls'

Debbie Carroll, the police liaison for Long Reach, said she noticed a significant difference when Robey became chief.

"He's there at community events; he returns your calls, puts you in touch with who can answer your questions," said Carroll, a staunch Republican who says she will vote for Robey in November. "He's given our community the tools we need to be effective."

Robey also has been praised for creating the auxiliary police force -- a unit of 25 volunteers who assist motorists, direct traffic and patrol the streets -- and setting the stage for putting computers in patrol cars.

Many in government also say Robey dealt well with the police union, which troubled his predecessors, and he managed to keep his officers happy while still being an effective manager.

Several miscues

But Robey also has suffered several miscues during his tenure as chief, including two notorious incidents that could haunt him during the campaign.

In one, officers who were sent into massage parlors in a 1995 prostitution investigation participated in sex acts to gather evidence. Prosecutors eventually dropped 11 of the 13 cases that resulted from the investigation.

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