Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose sought to defuse a brewing controversy yesterday over comments he made during a graduation speech to new officers about the presence of dishonest and prejudiced colleagues in the county's 1,032-member police force.
Moose said in an interview that he told the members of his first graduating class from the police academy to make the right choices and ignore negative influences in the department. But many of the more than 200 people at the graduation ceremony at Northwest High School on Thursday night felt the chief's comments tarnished the entire department, which has been trying for years to dispel allegations of racial insensitivity.
"Your peers will tell you to forget everything you've learned in the academy," Moose said in his speech, later adding: "So, the question is do we surrender to that mentality? . . . Maybe we can't do anything about the past, but the question is what's going to be your future."
Word of the chief's remarks spread quickly through the force on Friday, and videotapes of the ceremony were copied and played by unhappy officers for their co-workers at roll call in several station houses. Some called or sent e-mail to elected officials, complaining that the chief's comments were particularly inappropriate for a graduation ceremony--a setting where police brass and county officials usually focus on the positive.
"I though it was unwarranted and pretty damned degrading. He called our honor code a joke. I'm real disappointed in him," said one high-ranking officer who attended the graduation and who asked not to be identified.
"It's a discredit to all the men and women doing their jobs," another police officer said.
The chief said that his words were not meant as a blanket indictment, and that he referred specifically to eight cases since 1984 in which officers remained on the force even though they were found to have lied on the job. He also referred to a recent article in The Washington Post about racial attitudes within the department, and said yesterday he was "insulted" by some of the comments made by officers in the story.
"Do you follow a model . . . where we continue to have people that are liars carry badges and work the street, where we have people who talk about discriminating against blacks and still carry their badges," Moose said in his graduation speech. "It is your decision. It is your choice, and I pray that you make the right decision."
Defending his comments yesterday, Moose said, "I guess there are people who think that my job is to praise them, pay them and then praise them some more."
Moose was sworn in as chief in August, following a nationwide search. County officials wanted a police chief who could put to rest years of charges by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People that Montgomery County police officers regularly target minorities for abuse or harassment. Three years ago, the allegations spurred the U.S. Justice Department to launch an investigation that is ongoing.
Moose left his post as chief of police in Portland, Ore., to become the second African American to lead Montgomery's force, and he came with a reputation for being direct and for not backing away from controversy or the issue of racial profiling.
"It was a very blunt speech," said County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), who attended the graduation and defended Moose's comments yesterday. "Some people have interpreted it as an indictment of the whole department. I don't see it that way. He set a standard of behavior for the department, and he let them know very clearly what that standard will be. That's a message that needed to be said."
Other elected officials, however, disagreed. The County Council's three public safety committee members issued a statement yesterday rejecting "the notion that the actions of a few should implicate the body."