At first glance, Col. George T. Owens might not strike you as the kind of man you would expect to find behind a gun, managing a 248-member police force in one of Virginia's fastest growing counties.

"He's a laid-back type person," said Prince William County Attorney John Foote. Many county officials describe Owens as unassuming, even shy. Some people will tell you that they still find it hard to understand how a man who is known to have conversations with people and never look them in the eye has been able to do so well.

"He might not say a lot, but what he does say has impact," explained William Wieland, president of the Prince William County Police Association.

Consider this: He has been in office longer than any of his counterparts in the metropolitan area -- 17 years, the county's first and only chief. His department has never had a major scandal. The crime rate, in a county of 200,000, which last year had seven murders compared with Fairfax's 13, dropped last year. And two months ago his department for the first time received accreditation by a national organization that sets professional criteria for police departments.

"There is not a doubt that George Owens is made of steel on the inside," Foote said.

Owens' unyielding position on honesty within the department is a case in point. "The cardinal rule is that you do not tell a lie," said Deputy Chief Charlie Deane.

Said Owens: "Most of the time you can deal with the problem.

"But if you tell a lie you com-"He might not say a lot, but what he does say has impact."

-- William Wieland

pound the problem. I have ended up firing somebody for lying when I probably wouldn't have for whatever problem they caused."

Owens' low-key demeanor is reflected in a managerial style that won him the "best manager in county government" this year.

"If you hire good people and leave them alone and let them do their job, then they will have more pride in what they do," said Owens, a former state trooper. "But you certainly give them guidelines to work within."

Said Maj. J.K. Sullivan: "He has always told me my assignment and then gotten out of my back pocket."

Owens said his hands-off approach lets him concentrate on planning.

In the eyes of his peers, the style has worked. Police officials in surrounding areas said Owens is widely respected in the metropolitan area for his aggressive use of technology in police work and crime-prevention programs.

"He started that agency from scratch and has really done a nice job," said Fairfax Police Chief John E. Granfield, who serves with Owens on the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police legislative committee. "He has attracted an excellent staff."

On affirmative action, Owens has a better record than other county branches and private industry: 12 percent of the sworn police staff is minority, while the county rate for the private business sector stands at 7.7 percent. Of the county government work force, 11.2 percent is minority. The county's minority population is 10 percent, according to the 1980 census.

In keeping with his spartan style, Owens has shied away from aligning himself with any faction on the county board, and in budget proposals he never asks for more than he needs, Deane said.

Wieland said that the chief's lack of bargaining room in budget proposals is his one criticism of Owens. "If George Owens says he needs 10 extra men, you can best believe that's what the department needs. I think that has hurt us sometimes," Wieland said.

But he added that he couldn't complain too much because of the salaries of officers, which are nearly identical to those in Fairfax. They are paid $22,000 to $33,000. Owens receives $65,977.

If people are a product of their backgrounds, then that might account for the chief's budget philosophy. Owens, who is 57, grew up in a small town of 9,000 during the lean years of the Depression and World War II, the son of a cook and a tax business manager. He spent his youth hunting, fishing and skiing near his hometown of Saranac, N.Y., and learned the value of a dollar and a job.

"That certainly was a time when work was scarce," said Owens, a father of four who lives in Dale City with his wife and 17-year-old daughter. "People worked hard because they were glad to get a job. Things other than necessities were hard to come by."

Like other parts of Prince William government, the department's most significant challenge is growth. "Recruiting quality people is going to become a bigger problem," Owens said, referring to the need to keep pace with the population.

The department began in July 1970 with 35 officers, four administrators and the chief operating out of one room in a Gar-Field school building.

"We had to fight for things more established departments already had," Sullivan said.

Dave Mabie, an investigator who was one of the county's original patrolmen, recalled that the chief did not give a long speech before the first crew of officers took the road at 12:01 a.m. July 1, 1970.

"He told us that he wanted us to strive for a high degree of professionalism," Mabie said. "I don't think he promoted professionalism in a cheerleader-type fashion, with pep talks. That hasn't changed."