Police work has changed since Clifford Sowards signed on as one of 42 officers in the newly established Prince William County Police Department on July 1, 1970.

The department now is 20 years old, and veteran members of the class of 1970 reminisced about the days when they forged a law enforcement entity out of a $750,000 budget, 20 police cars and only three specialized units.

"There were times when, on the midnight shift, we might get a few people with days off and another to call in sick and we would end up with three people covering the whole county -- one on the east end, one in the middle and one in the western end," said Sowards, 46, now a senior investigator. "You just didn't start a lot of trouble you couldn't finish because backup was sometimes 15 to 20 minutes away."

Today, the department operates on an annual budget of $23 million and consists of 302 sworn officers, including specialists in fingerprint analysis, drug abuse prevention, hostage negotiation and crime scene evaluation.

It is the youngest police agency in Northern Virginia, but department officials say it rivals more established departments in facilities, investigation and crime prevention.

The department serves the second-largest county in Northern Virginia, which has grown from a population of 100,000 in 1970 to 230,000 this year.

Calls for service in Prince William have increased from 23,000 in 1970 to 175,000 last year, including more violent crime, more domestic disturbances and a staggering number of drug-related offenses, police said.

The department is expected to double in size in the next 20 years to keep up with the increasing local population, said Police Chief Charlie T. Deane.

"We expect to continue the growth," Deane said. "Because of that, we will continue to increase the number of volunteers in the department. That's an untapped resource. We have 11 volunteers helping us now, and we will continue to develop that."

The department's Neighborhood Watch program, which began in 1979 with one group, now includes more than 100 organizations and 25,000 residents, he said. That network is expected to become even more valuable in helping police as the population grows, he said.

Plans for expansion include construction of a new police substation west of Manassas and an increase in the number of clerical workers.

Deane would like to see more decision-making power placed in the hands of supervisors in the coming years, he said.

Approved by the Prince William Board of County Supervisors in September 1969, the department was started after some residents -- particularly in the county's east end -- complained that they needed more police service than the Sheriff's Department was providing, said former police chief George T. Owens.

"The state compensation board helps to pay for the Sheriff's Department, so they can decide when and if funding will be increased," Owens said. "Having local police put that control in the county board's hands."

Because of time constraints that limited training, no rookies were employed in the first group, said Owens, who retired as chief two years ago.

The majority of the officers were recruited from Alexandria, the Sheriff's Department and the Virginia State Police, police said.

Veterans said law enforcement was a very different job in 1970. Drugs were not a major problem, and homicides and other violent crimes were rare. The most serious problems were theft, domestic disturbances and drunk driving, officers said.

Since then, the county has experienced a startling upsurge in narcotics-related offenses and violence, following a national trend.

The small-town sense of cooperation between the police and public has been replaced by a more urban distrust of officers, said Lt. William L. Hunt, who joined the department in 1970 as a patrol sergeant.

"The face of the community has changed so much," Hunt said. "I remember going by farms where farmer so-and-so would be making hay and raising corn. Now, we are arresting people on the same land for family disputes and robberies in condominiums that have been built on the same land."

Deane said the department's largest growth has been in the area of police technology. The dispatch of officers, which was once conducted exclusively over telephone lines, is now computerized. Technology has also been employed to assist in fingerprint matching and crime analysis, he said.

Computers will be used more to increase capabilities in identification and evidence-gathering in the coming decade, Deane said.

In interviews last week, officers recounted successes and failures, happy endings and tragedies.

Sowards is haunted by a killing he investigated in 1974. The victim was a member of the Coast Guard named Paul Digon, who was found shot to death on Dec. 4, 1974.

"I'd like to solve that one before I retire," Sowards said.

Sgt. Ralph Bennett, who now heads up recruitment, said his most memorable case involved the investigation of a one-legged man suspected of polygamy, drug dealing and possession of illegal weapons. After obtaining a search warrant to the man's Dumfries home, Bennett -- then a patrol officer -- and Officer Ralph Ahrens, entered to collect evidence.

"I remember hearing Ahrens yelling for someone to come out with their hands up," said Bennett. "I suddenly realized that I hadn't told him that the man had an artificial leg. He was standing there with his gun drawn at an artificial leg sticking out of the closet. I remember we all howled at that one for a long time."

July 1, 1970: Began operations at 12:01 a.m.

1975: Community Resource Officer program began, placing officers in high schools.

1977: Established SWAT team.

1979: First Neighborhood Watch program.

1980: Established program to monitor career criminals.

1982: Established computer-aided dispatch system.

1984: Established automated fingerprint system.

1987: Department accredited.

1989: Established narcotics strike force.

------------ 20 YEARS OF GROWTH ------------

........................1970............1990

Budget..............$750,000.....$23 million

Sworn officers........... 42.............302

Police vehicles...........20.............230

County population....100,000.........230,000

Calls for service.....23,000........175,000*

*1989