Robey defends record as chief Executive candidate praised for efforts in community outreach

'Things quieted down'

GOP's Schrader says rival 'probably got mixed results' in post

October 18, 1998|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

Eight years ago, the Howard County Police Department was in turmoil.

The state NAACP gave the county a dubious "Dirty Harry" award, judging the police force to be one of the five worst in the state when it came to brutality complaints.

The chief, Frederick W. Chaney, suffered criticism as a poor leader from within the ranks and from a minority community that also complained about the lack of high-ranking minority officers. Chaney resigned at the request of County Executive Charles I. Ecker, less than four years after the previous chief, Paul Rappaport, resigned amid similar complaints.

Things looked so bad that when the new chief, James N. Robey, took over in early 1991, Chaney offered these words of encouragement: "I wish him luck in that job. It can get to be quite thankless at times."

Indee, Robey would find out how thankless the job can be, though by the time he stepped down in January to run as a Democrat for county executive, the police force was no longer in turmoil.

In his seven years as chief, his department again faced accusations of racism, police brutality and a failure to promote minority officers, though mostly early in his tenure.

He suffered intense criticism for defending the use of a lie-detector test on a rape victim, and to this day he stands by a massage parlor sting that even some of his supporters believe was an embarrassment to the county.

Budget reductions

Robey also had to make painful budget cuts during his first year as chief, and he couldn't fill vacancies. Early in his tenure, Robey faced some of the same complaints from the union that dogged his predecessors, that he didn't fight hard enough for the rank and file.

Yet Robey left on his terms. Union officials weren't calling for his head (though their enthusiasm for Robey might be rooted in self-interest, because Robey wants to improve officer salaries and benefits if elected executive). He still enjoyed the unwavering support of Ecker. And community leaders -- even ones backing his Republican opponent, Dennis R. Schrader -- say he worked well with them.

"You can see the difference" between the Rappaport-Chaney era and Robey's tenure, said the Rev. John L. Wright, a Schrader supporter who was president of the local and state NAACP in the mid-1980s. "Things sort of quieted down."

It's hard to measure Robey's successes in statistics. Violent crimes remained relatively uncommon, but that is to be expected in a wealthy suburb: There were five homicides in the year before Robey took over, seven murders during his second year as chief, then only one in his seventh and final year; robberies went up, but aggravated assaults went down; and the number of reported rapes remained fairly constant at slightly more than 30 a year.

Community leaders and politicians say Robey's greatest achievements were his initiatives to forge better relationships with communities: establishing community policing, setting up satellite offices in several neighborhoods, putting two officers in high schools, starting an after-school program at one school where officers mentor youths.

He earned the trust of minority leaders, who say he listened to complaints about police misconduct and acted on long-standing concerns about recruitment and promotion of minority officers.

He gained credibility with his efforts to recruit minority officers and with the first promotion of an African-American to captain in the history of the department.

But Robey's shortcomings, at least as some saw them, also didn't show up in crime statistics.

Some current and former officers, as well as some people outside the department, say he was a cautious, politically calculating leader who was at times hesitant to take risks or try others' ideas. One official with whom he had a poor relationship was Republican State's Attorney Marna McLendon, who criticized the Democrat's "insular" style of leadership.

"I was very disappointed that we could not work better together, because he really seemed to resist that," McLendon said. "It really just went downhill over the years."

McLendon and Robey clashed most over her plan for "community prosecution," in which prosecutors would have worked closely with communities, encouraging citizens to talk with them about problems. Robey felt it was a duplication of his community policing program and would lead to confusion about whom citizens should contact. McLendon and Robey met with Ecker last year to try working out their differences but failed.

'Passing him by'

"The way of the future is criminal justice agencies working together and with communities. This is passing him by," said McLendon, who is running for re-election against a friend of Robey's, Tim McCrone. "It's just passing him by and he doesn't understand the concept."

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