When Walter R. Bishop accepted the job of Herndon police chief in the early 1970s, he agreed -- at the proding of town fathers -- to settle down in their quiet little Northern Virginia community.
For three years the former District police inspector resided within the boundaries of the four-square-mile boundaries of the four-square-mile town on the Fairfax-Loudoun county border. Then, without formally notifying his bosses, Bishop trucked all his belongings back to his old house in Rockville and has lived there since.
That move didn't get Bishop demoted from his post, but many in Herndon say it was typical of what they see a the chief's high-handed approach to law enforcement -- an approach that some blame for the cloud of controversy that has been shrouding the town's 23-member police force for months.
Herndon patrolmen have taken to resigning in droves for jobs with other jurisdictions and they publicly cite Bishop as their reason for leaving. oAccording to these officers, the chief unduly restricted their authority, threatened them with dismissal if they frequented the only night spot in town, saddled them with reams of paperwork, and enforced police regulations to a point that was both aggravating and dangerous.
"Ive got no vendetta against him. He always treated me nice," says Nojir (Jeff) Jeffries, who resigned from the Herndon force last year and is now working as a Fairfax County patrolman. "It's just that his polcies were unbearable . . . He's the emperor, not the chief."
Alarmed at a police turnover rate that Herndon Mayor Tom Rust concedes has been "high as hell," the town council has launched a two-month study of the department. It is also conducting a legal investigtion of charges by a recently resigned officer that his supervisor ordered him to arrest a man without sufficient evidence that the man had committed a crime.
Bishop, a barrel-chested, 30-year police veteran who headed a 109-man vice unit for D.C. police before becoming Herndon's top cop in 1972, agrees his department has problems. But he lays the blame at the feet of town officials, saying they have not given him adequate personnel to meet the needs of a rapidly developing community of 11,000.
"These things are like a snowball, if you know what I mean," Bishop says. "If you've got a shortage of personnel, you work starts piling up and you try to fill your vacancies as soon as you can. You may take people who don't have the intention to remain, or who you may not be able to work with."
Regardless of the causes, a police department that has seen 10 of 14 patrolmen resign over the past 18 months is not the sort of organization that makes many Herndon residents happy. By comparison, the nearby town of Vienna has lost only two people from its force of 37 over the last four years and Fairfax City's vacancy a year.
"I've lived here for 20 years, and it's just gotten ridiculous. I don't know any of these patrolmen any more," says George Lacy, assistant manager of the Texaco station that graces Herndon's main street. "I'd feel a lot safer if I felt I could count on the police patrolmen -- and I don't know that I can."
Currently, the average Herndon patrolman has been on the job for only about a year while the average length of service in other small nearby police forces ranges from eight to 10 years. The average patrolman on the district's police force has held his job for almost nine years.
Only two members of Herndon's current patrol force have more than 20 months experience on the force.
Of six former Herndon patrolmen contacted this week, five are working for law enforcement organizations in other area jurisdictions. All painted a picture of Herndon police department headed by a crusty veteran who clamps down unnecessarily on his subordinates to let them know who's boss. Symbolic of that sentiment, they said, was Bishop's insistence that patrolmen wear their hats at all times except in their patrol cars.
Jack Gilbert, a two-year veteran of the force when he resigned last fall, recalled a Fourth of July brawl that broke out when the town's fire marshall tried to confiscate fireworks from a group of youths. Gilbert said he was one of three officers called to the scene.
"There we were trying to break up the fight, when a sergeant came over and put hats on two of the policemen," Gilbert said. "They should have been more concerned with the safety of the fire marshall than with a simple regulation like hats."
Bishop defends his policy on the rationale that a hat is "partly a sign of authority" and serves to properly identify an officer. "I can say I've seen many (dangerous) things that have occurred because a man wasn't identified as a police officer," he says.
Some other local law enforcement authorities don't buy his reasoning. "I like them to wear their hats, but there are times that I know and you know it's not possible," says Vienna Police Chief Vernon Jones. "You take the time to get your hat squared and put your chin strap on -- you could get yourself killed."
In a presentation to the Herndon Town Council this month, former Herndon patrolman Douglas A. Poppa charged that he had been ordered by then-Cpl. Terrance R. Shifflet last month to obtain a warrant against a suspect for trespassing even though he did not have probable cause to suspect the man had committed the crime.
Poppa, now a Loudoun deputy sheriff, said he told Shifflet he had no evidence to back up the charge, but said Shifflet had insisted upon the warrant nonetheless. Police say Shifflet, who could not be reached for comment, has since been bumped down to patrolman status on his own request.
Bishop refused to discuss the case pending the results of the council's legal investigation.
Ex-Herndon officer Jeffries grumbled that Bishop had required officers to "write up a report every time a dog barked." Jesse Bowman, who now works as a Fairfax County policeman, was critical of what he said was Bishop's practice of watching his employes when they were off duty. "Sure it has a chilling effect," said Bowmen. "you begin to wonder what have I done? What are they looking for?"
Bishop has remained placid in the face of the controversy. He maintains that at least half the patrolmen who have resigned the Herndon force were poor quality policeman, and says many might have been fired if they had not resigned.
"They say I'm dictatorial -- I really don't look at it that way," he said.
"If you don't go out here and screw up a crime scene, I wouldn't say anything about it, now would I?"
Amir Soltari, the owner of a local Sunoco station, who says he had to wait two hours last week for police to respond to his call for emergency help in frightening off vandals, is not so calm. "They (the police) just don't have enough help," he says. "Our service has really gone down over the past two years . . .
"I'm ready to get the hell out of this . . . town."