Since Michael J. Flaherty took over as chief of the Prince George's County Police 16 months ago he has had to deal with several crises, ranging from the firing of the force's top black officer to the police shooting of an 8-year-old boy during a drug raid. He still faces a certain amount of turmoil within and outside of the force, but he has made more of an effort to be visible around the county than his predecessors, residents and officials now say.
Flaherty had barely taken control when he was hit by a series of personal and professional misfortunes. In November 1983, his close friend, Capt. Richard Beavers, commander of the Oxon Hill station, was murdered by a would-be robber. Four days later, Lt. Robert A. Luther, another friend who was appointed to succeed Beavers, died suddenly of a heart attack.
Then in January 1984, a fracas between police and citizens over sledding on a hill in Lanham turned into a public relations disaster after one person was badly beaten and nine arrests were made, evoking memories of the old department in the 1960s and early 1970s. That was a time when the department had a reputation for disregarding the rights of some citizens.
County Executive Parris Glendening had surprised the county when he chose Flaherty over Lt. Col. Joseph Vasco, who was popular among the officers but a political liability because he was a holdover from an era when Prince George's police had a reputation of being brutal and racist.
The number of police-brutality complaints filed against the department dropped dramatically during the late 1970s, largely because of a change in the way officers were taught to handle situations, officials said.
Between 1979 and 1983, however, the number of complaints about the use of excessive force, the use of demeaning language and harassment by officers began to creep up again in Prince George's, from 28 in 1979 to 58 in 1983, county officials said, the result of increased public awareness about the filing process. About 40 complaints were made to the county's human relations commission in the first half of 1984, an official said, but the police department said it had only 20 for the entire year.
Human relations director William Welsh said the complaints of excessive force are less serious than in previous years. "It's not the kind thing where people are getting beaten up like they used to" in the 1960s and early 1970s, Welsh said.
The department under Flaherty has also been involved in difficult negotiations with black officers seeking to change promotion policies that they believe are biased. Some of those tensions were aggravated last December when Flaherty made headlines by firing the department's top ranking black commander, Lt. Col. Thomas Davis. Davis was accused of ordering subordinates to change test scores of black applicants.
Two months ago, Flaherty, 42, was said to be on the verge of retiring from his $61,000-a-year post to take another job -- later learned to be at the State Department. Glendening took special pains to squelch the report.
Flaherty asserted "there are no problems here," but he acknowledged that the job offer, coupled with a pension that would have given him 52 percent of his current salary, was very attractive.
Flaherty said his greatest frustration comes from "this county's inability to fund the government." Like many other county agencies, the 900-officer department has suffered under the weight of TRIM, the county's restrictive tax initiative.
Glendening said he gives the police chief an A for "starting on a path of substantial improvement" by persuading the County Council to approve a three-year, $9.5 million capital improvement plan to upgrade police facilities, primarily by renovating old public school buildings.
The fiscal 1985 budget is set at $41.3 million but may be cut to $39.5 million, officials said. They said this will further slow the rate of purchasing equipment and replacing police cars, and may force a cutback of personnel.
The force can ill afford a loss of staff, said Flaherty, who believes it is 400 officers short of what is needed. "We handle more calls for service than any other department in the metropolitan area," he said, pointing out that Prince George's has fewer officers than other large jurisdictions, such as Baltimore County.
Flaherty also said that if he had more money he would also create a missing persons division and a juvenile program to help steer first offenders away from further trouble.
Although the number of crimes is dropping in Prince George's, the chief believes juveniles are committing more serious offenses. But the department is equipped only to "hustle them through the system," he said.
Several County Council members said that one of Flaherty's best ideas was the appointment of three majors as area supervisors; they spend a great deal of time meeting with citizens. "I was a doubting Thomasina" about adding another layer of bureaucracy," said Sue V. Mills, who repesents the Clinton-Oxon Hill area. But Maj. Larry Shanks, responsible for her area, "is absolutely accessible," she added.
Police officers however, have more diverse reactions to their leader.
The first administrative hurdle he faced was a complaint from black officers that they were denied access to choice jobs and promotions. In an attempt to address those complaints, Flaherty agreed to do away with seniority points in the promotion process.
By that move, the chief lost some support among white officers, said Tom Lennon, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police, the bargaining unit for the officers.
On the other hand, blacks, who make up about 20 percent of the department, are still not satisfied that the promotional process is unbiased. In December 1983 they filed a discrimination complaint against the department, charging that blacks are kept out of high ranking positions.
The promotional process is a sore subject in the force, and one that Flaherty walks softly around.
"I'm kept advised on the negotiations between blacks, the Fraternal Order of Police and county labor negotiatiors , but I let the county handle it," Flaherty said.
The most frequent complaint by officers about the chief is that his tenure is marked by his absence, and that he is difficult to reach and often out of town.
Last year, for example, Flaherty attended a two-week seminar on terrorism sponsored by the State Department in Europe, went to a convention in Salt Lake City and took a FBI course in Quantico.
"I don't think he goes out among the troops enough," said Sgt. Laney Hester, echoing a common complaint of new and old officers. Former Chief John McHale, for instance, frequently stopped by the district stations during roll call, Hester said.
Glendening, too, said his major criticism of the chief is that Flaherty gets involved with the community "to a fault," and needs to spend more time with officers.
The chief acknowledged he has not spent much time with members of the force and said he is trying to improve that record. Last year he initiated a practice of holding promotion and retirement ceremonies for officers.
Flaherty's absences and close ties with the county's chief executive officer John Wesley White have led some officers to believe that he is not really in charge.
For instance, when Flaherty is not at the Forestville headquarters, the daily operation of the police department is left to Lt. Col. Rice Turner, who was once Flaherty's supervisor and who helped push the assertive, younger officer up the career ladder. Flaherty knows how to delegate authority, Turner said, but he stays "up to date on daily operations.
When major decisions need to be made, Flaherty consults closely with White, the county's second in command. White said he and the chief concurred in the decision to dismiss Davis, the black deputy chief who was accused of ordering blacks' test scores changed.
A few weeks later, White suggested to Flaherty that the department start issuing criminal citations to officers involved in drunk driving incidents, a policy change that has created some resentment within the department. But White bristled at the suggestion by officers and local politicians that he really runs the department. "That's not fair to me and it's not fair to Mike," he said.
White said Flaherty is hard working and "puts a lot of pressure on himself." But he said the chief is also very "headstrong," and "gets his mind made up -- sometimes prematurely."
Most county officials and citizens agree that the department's biggest blunder under Flaherty was the January 1984 incident in Lanham in which about a dozen officers broke up an unruly group of sledders. One man, whom police said was resisting arrest, was clubbed in the head and the bloody scene caused an uproar.
Citizens and police gave conflicting stories of what happened, and it was nearly three weeks before the department fully stated what had taken place. Lennon said officers were angry that Flaherty did not immediately issue statements supporting his troops. "First impressions are lasting," Lennon said, adding that many officers "are still waiting for him to prove himself."
Lennon and White do give Flaherty good marks for smooth handling of a tragic incident last summer when Mongo Fitzhugh, 8, was accidentally shot to death by a police officer during a drug raid in Langley Park. That time, White said, police shared information with the community and the media within hours.
White said Flaherty was somewhat inexperienced when made chief, especially in knowing how to deal with the media. "He got more than he bargained for," White said, "but he is now getting experience along the way."