For weeks, the rumor has circulated up and down the halls of the Prince George's County administration building, traveled through the police headquarters at Forestville, to the Fraternal Order of Police and landed at the campaign office of Democratic county executive candidate Parris Glendening:
Lt. Col. Joseph D. Vasco, the third-ranking official in the 894-person force, wants to be chief of police, and word has it that Glendening has offered to appoint him if elected.
But Glendening insists, "There's been no deal . . . .I have made no commitments." Vasco says, "We've discussed it, yes. If it did become vacant, I'd be interested. I guess the mere fact that we discussed it would indicate that." Mahlron Curran, president of the county's Fraternal Order of Police, says, "The closest thing he Glendening told me is he has a list of people, Vasco's on that list, that he would consider him for the chief of police position . . . . I think Vasco's the forerunner."
Normally Vasco would seem a logical choice for the job if the new county executive decided to replace the present chief, John McHale. Vasco, head of the investigative unit, is so popular with the rank and file officers that at a July 13 meeting, FOP board members gave him what amounted to a unanimous endorsement. They also agreed to make support for Vasco one of the conditions of the FOP's endorsement of council candidates, even though none of the candidates for executive has said he would replace McHale.
But Vasco is also the subject of a protracted civil lawsuit that is scheduled to go to trial Nov. 15 in Baltimore. He is accused of setting up a series of robberies in 1967 for a police unit known as the "Death Squad" that left one 18-year-old robber dead and another seriously injured, all in the name of frightening criminals away from the county.
And although Vasco has spent the last couple of years quietly tending his administrative duties, the start of the trial two weeks after the general election would create problems for any politician wanting to promote Vasco.
Nonetheless, Vasco's supporters are many, including the present and the former presidents of the FOP, Curran and Laney Hester, and Sheriff James V. Aluisi.
Glendening, considered the leading Democratic nominee and thus the frontrunner for county executive, says "Joe Vasco is a friend of mine, and Betty Vasco his wife has been working long hours in my campaign for six months . . . But the answer . . . is, up until December when I'm sworn in, I have made no commitments."
Glendening added that "Mal Curran of the FOP talked to me about it several times as recently as last Thursday , but the context of it was, 'if you have an opening, an awful lot of the officers would really like Joe in there.' "
Aluisi said, "I think Joe's indicated for a long time that he wants to be chief," but said he believed that Glendening has made no commitment to Vasco, and in fact could not. "I think it's because of the controversy over the civil suit."
The civil suit, sparked by a six-week investigation into the death squad by The Washington Post, is the cloud over Vasco, and even his friends and defenders have a hard time explaining how he could be appointed with such serious charges hanging over his head.
"There's no doubt about it, that there were stakeouts and people were shot. The question was, did they set the informants up," said Aluisi, "And . . . that doesn't sound right. The incidents did happen and people were shot."
Aluisi added, "It's tough to judge people today by the standards of 10 years ago."
Glendening said, "From what I know of him I don't think he would ever have anything to do with something like that."
Vasco himself says, "You have to understand that these are the kind of things that were done. I mean, the kind of police work that was done 15 years ago in a different era, a different culture. There was nothing wrong with it then. I mean, there's nothing wrong with it now."
He says the lawsuit hasn't affected his life, and nobody really talks about it,"except, like a bad golf score, you know, to joke about it."
He admits that he misses his old job in operations, where he supervised about four times as many officers as the 150 he does now, and felt closer to the uniformed "troops," as he calls them. Vasco managed the day-to-day operations of the force during a period of explosive population growth and a spiraling crime rate, and is credited with keeping morale up and tensions down in a period that stretched the resources of the force to the limit.
Aluisi says Vasco has community support, too: "When he was acting chief of police we were in a parade together in Fairmont Heights and Greenbelt riding in a jeep. In a parade people can yell whatever they want, and everybody was yelling, 'yay for Vasco, yay for the chief of police.' "