When Prince George's County police Cpl. Gordon Pinnell faced an administrative trial board in March on allegations that he used excessive force against an Oxon Hill youth, the news media packed the hearing room.

Two months later, when the department's Fraternal Order of Police awarded $25,000 in scholarship money to area high school seniors, not a television camera, radio microphone or newspaper reporter was around.

Tired of such discrepancies in media coverage and seeking to improve its standing in the community, the county police union has turned to a Capitol Hill public relations firm to spruce up its image.

The FOP's contract with Smith & Harroff Inc. -- to review the lodge's image and recommend policies to improve it -- is a first among area police unions and a rarity among police groups across the country, according to national and local police union spokesmen.

"We felt that the {county police} administration had not taken enough steps to get the word out about the positive things the FOP and the officers do," said Robert Sappington, president of the Prince George's County FOP, which represents 900 county officers. "We want to make sure the public finds out about them and not just the isolated negative incidents."

The FOP's search for a public relations firm began more than two months ago when a public opinion survey of county residents showed general support for the force but found that a significant group -- mostly minority residents or those with lower income and less education -- believed officers used excessive force. The survey was conducted by the University of Maryland for Police Chief Michael Flaherty.

The FOP's announcement also follows by a week State's Attorney Alex Williams' release of a new policy for investigating police shootings and allegations of police brutality, a policy that will send some of those cases to a county grand jury for review.

The county police grappled with a steady stream of brutality complaints in the 1970s, especially from black residents. The negative perceptions of the department formed then in the county's black communities still exist. The survey released this summer by Flaherty showed that 48 percent of the nonwhite residents who participated believe officers use excessive force, compared with 25 percent of the white residents polled.

"We know we have image problems, especially in some areas," Sappington said. "We think this decision to hire a communications firm will show residents we are concerned about it and want to improve."

The four-month contract with the Capitol Hill firm is being paid for by the FOP, not the police department. Sappington would not say exactly how much the FOP is spending on the venture. "I'll just say it is expensive," he said.

Smith & Harroff usually works with political candidates such as Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine),, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Constance Morella (R-Md.). But the agency's contract with the county FOP marks its first work for a police union, said James C. Smith, a consultant with Smith & Harroff.

Smith said the agency would review the FOP's relations with the media, including how officers handle electronic and print media interviews, and how the union promotes its charitable programs. "They have an obvious image problem," Smith said. "They can use the extra help."

Other area FOP chapters said they usually handle public relations with in-house committees. Walter Bader, president of the Montgomery County FOP, said his group had contracted with public relations firms, but not for help with officers' image. "But then," Bader said, "we don't have the same image problems that Prince George's has."

Ralph Orms, executive secretary of the Grand Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police in Louisville, the parent organization for 1,700 local FOP chapters in the United States, has contracted with public relations firms over the years.