After rising steadily for three years, the number of excessive force, harassment and abusive language complaints filed against the Prince George's County police fell sharply in 1995 and has continued to drop this year.

Civilians filed 83 complaints against county police officers in 1995, 20 percent fewer than in 1994, according to a report released last week by the county's civilian oversight panel. And this year, police said, the department has received 21 complaints so far, down from 41 complaints at this point in 1995.

Police officials hailed the figures as proof that officers are doing a better job of working with the communities they protect. Members of the Citizen Complaint Oversight Panel were more cautious in their assessments but also said the numbers were promising.

"It's the first time in five years that complaints have fallen, but I don't think we can really tell if this is a trend yet," said Clyde B. Davis, a panel member who stepped down this year. "I do believe there has been an effort by the department to do better. . . . I definitely think it's a good sign."

Police spokesman Royce Holloway attributed the drop in complaints to two factors: increased public understanding of what constitutes "excessive force" and better training of police officers.

"We're teaching them better ways to approach people. Basically, arrest techniques have changed," Holloway said. "Instead of just grabbing someone, you explain what's going on and tell them what they're being arrested for."

Holloway said the department is especially happy to see complaints of excessive force fall, from 86 in 1994 to 65 in 1995.

"We're looking at these excessive force numbers very closely," Holloway said. "It's not that the other categories don't matter, but most of our citizens are concerned about excessive force."

The Citizen Complaint Oversight Panel was set up after a Ghanaian man, Gregory Kafi Habib, died during a 1989 scuffle with police during a routine traffic stop. Then-County Executive Parris N. Glendening (D) established the board during the public uproar that followed.

Habib's death also led Glendening to appoint a new police chief, David B. Mitchell, who was widely credited with helping the department shake its reputation, especially in the county's black communities, for police brutality.

But two recent incidents have recalled the department's bitter past.

A federal grand jury is investigating the alleged beating of a Lanham man in April 1995 by county police officers who suspected him in the slaying of a fellow officer. The man, Jeffrey C. Gilbert, was freed after strong evidence surfaced implicating another man in the shooting.

Federal authorities also are considering an investigation of four county police officers who were accused of beating a handcuffed burglary suspect outside a Shakey's restaurant in Suitland in 1994. The officers were acquitted last month by a Circuit Court jury.

The seven-member Citizen Complaint Oversight Panel is responsible for reviewing complaints against officers and commenting on how well the department's Internal Affairs Division investigated those complaints. The panel has no subpoena power or authority to hold hearings; it deals solely with written complaints and investigative reports prepared by Internal Affairs.

In its 1995 report, the panel said it reviewed police investigations into 102 complaints by civilians. About 80 percent of the complaints were made by African Americans, the panel said, and black officers were nearly as likely to be the target of a complaint as white officers.

The panel said it disagreed with the Internal Affairs Division's findings in 21 cases. In eight of those cases, the police chief adopted the panel's recommendations instead of those of the department's investigators, Holloway said.

But the outgoing chairman of the panel, the Rev. Robert J. Williams, said that overturning an Internal Affairs finding has been the exception rather than the rule.

"After five years, one has to question just how serious our commitment to citizen oversight really is," Williams wrote in his last report. "A close review of the record shows a nearly consistent disregard of the recommendations presented where we disagreed with the findings of the Internal Affairs Division."

As in previous years, the panel also proposed adding a civilian to the police department's internal trial boards, which hear appeals from police officers accused of wrongdoing.

Adding a civilian to the boards, the panel said, would ensure fairness and reassure the community that it has not been excluded from the process.