A survey of attitudes about Montgomery County police released yesterday found that residents generally have confidence in and are satisfied with the department's performance but that there are sharp differences in the views of whites and minorities.
The study, commissioned by the County Council as part of a larger study of complaints about the police department, immediately sparked controversy among critics of the department, who complained about the recommendation to delay creation of a citizen panel to review complaints to allow new Police Chief Charles A. Moose to make his own reforms.
Although the study found that the department's complaint process is ambiguous, out of date and misunderstood by both police and citizens, the Office of Legislative Oversight still recommended a delay of at least six months in setting up a civilian review process.
It was the third major study of police-citizen relations in Montgomery County in recent years and comes in the middle of a Justice Department civil rights review of more than 300 complaints against police compiled by the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP.
The latest study did not address the content of actual complaints but rather dealt entirely with procedures and perceptions of how those complaints are handled.
"I'm not surprised," Linda Plummer, local NAACP president, said yesterday. "I didn't expect anything different from them. I consider it to be money wasted. I hope the County Council is finally satisfied. It's another study, no resolution to another study."
James R. Sobers, head of the Montgomery County NAACP's criminal justice committee, said the survey "just substantiates what the NAACP has been saying all along: That minorities, blacks in particular, get different treatment by police officers than the white community. That treatment is intimidating, threatening.
"It's nothing new. It's a shame we have to spend taxpayers' money to have the government tell the same thing over and over again.
But county officials hailed the 240-page report as the most tangible affirmation yet of the department's performance and commitment to fairness. Michael L. Subin, (D-At Large), a member of the council's public safety committee, described the report as "outstanding" and said it "vindicated those who perceived that this is a very good department."
"On the other hand," Subin said, "it's vindicated those who were saying, on a perceptual basis, that there are some problems that need to be addressed immediately."
Most of the attention at a news conference held yesterday to unveil the new report was directed to twin surveys, conducted at a cost of $90,000 by an independent research firm, that found there is a high level of satisfaction with the department's overall performance.
According to the telephone survey of 805 residents, 73 percent of residents have a "great deal" of confidence in the Montgomery County police. But only 50 percent of blacks who responded described the department's treatment of residents in general as "excellent," compared with 56 percent of Hispanics and 72 percent of whites.
And only 38 percent of blacks who responded said they would describe the department's treatment of all races and ethnic groups in an equal and fair way as "excellent," compared with 45 percent of Hispanics and 54 percent of white residents.
The study provided new evidence that the investigation of the most serious complaints against officers by the police department's internal affairs office, take several times the 90-day period that officials say is optimal.
For example, last year the department's office of internal affairs spent an average of 225 days to complete an investigation, compared with 164 days the previous year.
Even with the presence of an internal affairs unit, the committee found there was no office or individual within the department ultimately accountable for responding to complaints. Yesterday, Moose told the County Council that he ought to be held accountable and that it's "not fair to [to blame the internal affairs unit] because they're working under the direction of the chief."
Moose has told police officials that he plans to publish a monthly report of complaints filed against the police department, such as allegations of inappropriate use of force and the number of people claiming to have been beaten by officers.
Walter E. Bader, the head of the Montgomery County branch of the Fraternal Order of Police, said of the department's internal affairs unit: "The only weakness is one of perception, and that's been the result of poor police management in the past. Now, it's time to move forward." Bader opposes establishing of a citizen review board.
While recommending against creation of such a board, the Office of Legislative Oversight suggested naming a five-member citizen advisory board--the members would be chosen by Moose and appointed by County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D)--to help the chief implement changes.
Henry Quintero, director of the Latino Civil Rights Task Force of Maryland, said yesterday that he still favors the creation of a citizens review board, "as long as it's given adequate personnel and investigators, with enough power."
Quintero, who spent 18 months on a panel whose recommendations led to the creation of more places where citizens can file complaints, said the department should still make it easier for immigrants ability to report allegations of police brutality.
Staff writer Fern Shen and Metro researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.
An Issue of Fairness
Montgomery County residents generally have high levels of confidence in their police force, but feelings about fairness in police conduct were not consistent across racial and ethnic lines.
Ratings of Montgomery County Police by white, black, Hispanic residents:
Whites Blacks Hispanics
% % %
Treating people fairly
Excellent/good 72 50 56
Fair/poor 16 42 38
Using only the appropriate level of force
Excellent/good 59 42 53
Fair/poor 16 42 30
Treating people of all races and ethnic groups in an equal and fair way
Excellent/good 54 38 45
Fair/poor 22 49 47
SOURCE: Telephone survey of 805 adult county residents from June 3 through June 12, 1999, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5%.