Fairfax County officials have always chosen a new chief from the ranks of their own police department and appear poised to do so again, according to sources familiar with the selection process.

A panel of police and community leaders, guided by Fairfax County Executive Anthony H. Griffin, has winnowed the search to four internal candidates: Lt. Col. Suzanne G. Devlin, acting chief; Lt. Col. Charles K. Peters; Lt. Col. David M. Rohrer; and Maj. Tyrone R. Morrow, the sources said.

But Griffin said that the 17-member panel will reconvene tomorrow at the request of the county Board of Supervisors and police union officials to interview one last candidate: Donald A. Flynn, an assistant director of the U.S. Secret Service. Flynn was a patrol officer and detective in Fairfax for eight years in the 1970s before joining the Secret Service.

After Flynn's interview, Griffin will submit his finalists to the board, which plans to interview them next week. Griffin and board members said they expect to make a decision shortly after the interviews.

The last chief, J. Thomas Manger, retired in January to take the top police job in Montgomery County. He was paid about $140,000 annually in Fairfax to oversee a department of 1,300 sworn officers, policing a population of slightly more than 1 million. Last year, the county had the lowest homicide rate among the nation's 30 largest jurisdictions. But it also has the lowest number of officers per citizen among those jurisdictions, and it is now trying to combat a spike in street gang violence.

Griffin said the county received about 50 applications for the Fairfax chief's job. He was surprised there weren't more, but "the problem is the county has never hired somebody from the outside. The folks in the law enforcement industry know these things, that it's not realistic, and they're not applying."

Devlin, who would become the county's first female police chief if selected, was appointed acting chief soon after Manger announced his retirement. She has been at the center of discussions about the job since. When Griffin convened six focus groups in April and May to discuss issues facing the next chief, many participants said they felt the process was a waste of time: Devlin was thought to have the job locked up.

"This decision has already been made," was a typical response from the groups of citizens, police officers and police commanders, according to a summary of comments. "Why waste our time participating?"

Griffin said he had never before used focus groups in a hiring process. Nor had he ever created such a large selection panel. Participants included Police Chiefs Charlie T. Deane of Prince William County and Toussaint E. Summers Jr. of Herndon, Chief Deputy David Lubas of the Fairfax sheriff's office, Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh, former Fairfax NAACP head Victor Dunbar, Hispanic Committee of Virginia Executive Director Jorge Figueredo, County Attorney David P. Bobzien and Deputy County Executive Rob Stalzer.

From the 50 applicants, Griffin selected 10 for interviews with the panel; one of those withdrew. Panelists said they were provided specific questions to ask the nine remaining applicants. They then filled out a ballot ranking their top candidates.

After that, Griffin said, "there was not a lot of conversation. It was pretty clear who the top candidates were."

But Flynn, who had not been granted an interview because he had never served as a major in a large police force, still had support from police union members and supervisors who thought he should at least appear before the panel. Griffin agreed to reconvene the panel to meet Flynn, who left the Fairfax police department in 1981.

"There are very few positions that I would retire from the Secret Service to accept," said Flynn, who has headed White House security and three divisions within the service. "This is at the top of the list."

Elaine N. McConnell (R-Springfield) said of Flynn, "From what I hear, he has excellent qualifications, but I want to look at him as well as the other candidates."

Officer Josh David, president of the Fairfax Coalition of Police union, which says it has close to 600 active members, said the union was pleased with the process, particularly that one of its members is on the selection panel. The union is not backing a particular candidate yet or voicing a preference for either an internal or external candidate, David said.

"An ideal candidate may be someone with both inside and outside experience," David said.

The four internal candidates have spent the vast majority of their careers in Fairfax. Devlin, 50, joined the department's park police force in 1976, rose to the rank of supervisor and was made a sergeant in 1983 when the park police was folded into the police department. She spent nine years as a sergeant in patrol and later headed the Franconia station, the training academy and internal affairs. She was named the department's first female deputy chief in 2000.

Rohrer, 47, is a 23-year veteran who is the deputy chief of investigations and operations. Peters, 44, has been on the force for 21 years and is deputy chief of patrol. Both are well known by the supervisors and have backers within the department. Neither returned calls Friday.

Morrow, 40, is a 20-year veteran who oversees three district stations. As a political newcomer, he made a surprisingly strong run for county sheriff last year by quickly raising large amounts of money and nearly defeating a longtime chief deputy in the Republican primary. As police chief, he said, he would work to improve pay for officers and civilian employees.

Manger said his time spent as acting chief, before his elevation, was "the longest six months of my life." Devlin, though, said that it has gone by fast and that she has enjoyed it.

She said she had seen the focus group's comments, but she does not see her selection as a foregone conclusion. "There are certainly no presumptions on my part," Devlin said. "They've got to pick the person that works best for them, and in a way that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the person." Devlin said she found the selection process exciting. She also was one of 10 candidates interviewed by the board in 1999.

Privately, some board members said they have divided views of Devlin. They said she did not inform them of recent visits by Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R) and Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R) to discuss gang violence. Devlin also filed a sexual discrimination lawsuit against the county and won a promotion in the 1980s, and she had a long-running zoning dispute with the county that has stuck in some supervisors' craws.

However, other supervisors said they intend to support Devlin. "She has undeniable bench strength" said Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee), who called himself an "unrepentant fan." He called Devlin a "very strong leader" and said he was impressed by her attention to community policing as a former station commander in his district -- in particular, her efforts to create a resource center for struggling families in the Franconia area.

Supervisor Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason) said Devlin has been a visible acting chief, active with community groups. "I was very impressed with Suzanne last time around. . . . She's done a fine job," Gross said.

Several other supervisors declined to comment on the search before receiving the list of finalists. Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said: "I don't think the board has a preference. If the candidates we receive are not satisfactory, we'll ask for more candidates."

Connolly said he could be objective about Devlin's candidacy despite her department having recently charged him with misdemeanor hit-and-run in a traffic accident. "I don't know what role she played, if any," he said. "I don't hold Suzanne or anyone else in the department responsible for that decision."

Lt. Col. Suzanne Devlin