Robey stresses public safety County executive candidate promises more pay for police

October 13, 1998|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

Democratic county executive candidate James N. Robey pledged yesterday at a news conference to improve pay for police officers, expand programs to prevent juvenile crime and install computers in squad cars, and the former police chief criticized his Republican opponent Dennis R. Schrader for not having a platform on public safety.

Schrader immediately shot back that Robey is "still campaigning for police chief," an oft-repeated criticism that for Schrader recasts Robey's best perceived strength, public safety, as a political crutch.

Yesterday's news conference allowed Robey to expand on topics he is most comfortable discussing, most of which he has touched on at candidate forums throughout the campaign. Some political experts question whether Robey should instead better highlight his positions on other issues.

"He's got to get out of that safe box," said Roger Caplan, a media consultant who is advising a couple of local Republican candidates but is not working on the executive's race. "This is an issue he shouldn't necessarily have to have a news conference for."

Robey said he would put three more officers in the county's high schools, doubling the number under a program established while he was chief. He said he wants to expand an after-school mentor program in which police officers work with "at-risk" youths.

He also said he will put computers in police cars to allow officers to do their jobs more quickly, an investment that Robey said will cost $5 million to get started. Robey said he would use $1 million in seized drug money to help pay the bill and would find money elsewhere for the computers without raising taxes.

Robey also wants to spend more money on police salaries, a central theme of his campaign. Yesterday, he reiterated concerns that Howard's police force is losing experienced officers to other jurisdictions, such as better-paying Prince George's County, because County Council member Schrader and other Republicans have failed to compensate officers adequately.

"If we're going to compete with these folks, we've got to be competitive," Robey said, noting statistics from a Maryland State Police report that placed Howard County close to last in salaries for police officers.

Representatives of four local public safety employee associations also hammered away at this point yesterday, endorsing Robey while castigating Schrader for opposing a pension plan that would have given officers more generous 20-year retirement benefits.

Many of the salaries used for comparison by the state police, however, are for out-of-state law enforcement organizations. Locally, as Schrader is quick to point out, Howard's salaries are competitive with Anne Arundel County, Baltimore, Baltimore County and Harford County, though not with Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

"We are a little behind Montgomery and Prince George's, but Prince George's is having a horrendous time trying to keep officers. That's why they're coming trying to steal ours," Schrader said yesterday, while maintaining that Howard's prime competition is with Baltimore region police forces. "I think the problem is overstated."

Schrader also blamed Robey for any recruiting problems the police are having today, accusing him of doing nothing about it while chief and then trying to run on the issue as a politician.

"He's created this crisis, and now he's going to run on it," Schrader said. "It's amazing to me. It's very shrewd."

Robey said he worked hard to recruit officers as police chief and points to the support he gets from rank-and-file officers as evidence of his ability to lead. He accused Schrader of "passing the buck" on the issue.

"He didn't pay any attention to the Police Department when he was on the County Council," Robey said. Now, as a candidate, Robey said, "[Schrader] talks about growth. He talks about education. He talks about taxes. And he sort of skirts the issue of public safety."

Schrader hinted that he will come out with ideas on public safety, too, beyond rhetoric about putting more police officers on the street. But he turns Robey's criticism back on him, calling the former police chief a one-issue candidate.

"So he's going to go from police chief to being super cop for the county," Schrader said. "If Jim wants to remain as police chief, he should have stayed as police chief."

Yesterday's news conference was Robey's first since he announced his candidacy in January. His campaign suggested yesterday that the candidate may hold more news conferences on other issues.

Pub Date: 10/13/98

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