In the past few years, Prince George's County has seen a police-officer work slowdown and a clamor for then-Police Chief John S. Farrell to resign. Tension between the department and the county's top prosecutor was obvious.
So internal acrimony is hardly new at the county's troubled police department. But insiders have said that in recent memory, the finger-pointing never has been as personal as it is now, when a chief has sounded off publicly at rank-and-file officers.
Late last month, the county's police union and Chief Melvin C. High held dueling news conferences. The union said the chief's crime-fighting plan has failed and High lashed back, saying the department's problem is lazy police officers. Between 60 and 175 officers are underperforming, High said.
"To question the work ethic of those on the street is just not helpful -- indeed, it is an insult," County Council member Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton) wrote in an Aug. 2 letter to High. "Every member of the Department deserves an apology."
Hendershot, who is the father of a county police officer, wrote a separate letter to the union, saying: "It is not helpful . . . to play the blame game."
The same day as the news conferences, High sent all his officers an edited video version of the event, taking out some of his harsh words and cutting out the critical comments by County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D).
The clash comes as homicides have increased 26 percent; rapes, 22 percent; carjackings, 45 percent; and robberies, 123 percent compared with this time last year.
High declined to comment for this article, saying through his spokeswoman that he has a fine relationship with the union and that he will continue to work with its members.
The chief is a former Mississippi schoolteacher who began his law enforcement career in 1969 as a D.C. patrolman. He rose to second-in-command, then left Washington in 1993 to be the chief in Norfolk, where violent crime fell.
Since High took over the Prince George's department in 2003 from chief Gerald M. Wilson, he has been well-liked by the rank and file, according to interviews with dozens of officers, including some who spoke privately. His direct style and experience garnered him the respect of the force, they said.
But he came to Prince George's as an appointee of Johnson's, and the county executive has had a rocky relationship with the department. Johnson ran for office three years ago on a platform of reforming the department, which has a history of abuses and civil rights violations and is being scrutinized by the Department of Justice.
As state's attorney from 1994 through 2002, Johnson prosecuted 11 officers accused of misconduct but won no convictions. Many officers have said they felt the department was targeted when Johnson was county prosecutor. As county executive, Johnson has vowed to beef up the department and hire 200 officers a year for the next six years.
At the July 29 news conference, High and Johnson sharply criticized the force, saying some officers were not earning their paychecks. "When officers go out there and do the job I ask them to, they will have my support," High said.
Percy Alston, president of Police Lodge 89, said his members were taken off guard by what they considered an unwarranted attack. He also said the chief's comments were ill-timed: The members are hurting from the June shooting death of Sgt. Steven F. Gaughan, who was killed in the line of duty at a Laurel area apartment complex.
"Placing blame is clearly not the way to motivate the troops," Alston said. "It was reprehensible to point fingers at 50, 60 officers, or however many it is. To blame them for the rise in crime is unconscionable."
Alston disputed the chief's numbers, saying some of the "nonperformers" are on leave for injury or maternity. Others, he said, are paired with new officers for several months and the trainee is credited with arrests and tickets.
David B. Mitchell, who was police chief from 1990 to 1995, said he had dust-ups with the union but nothing similar to recent events.
Darryl Jones, the union president from 1989 to 1994, said his relationship with Mitchell worked well because the chief deferred to him on key issues.
"The chief understood the [Fraternal Order of Police] had a much better understanding of the issues affecting the individual officers than he did," Jones said.
More recently, the most tenuous relationship between the union and a police chief was in 2002, when the rank and file called for the ouster of Farrell, who resigned soon after.
At the time, allegations of police using excessive force were rampant and community distrust of the police was widespread. Police morale was so low that officers admitted to engaging in a work slowdown to protest what they described as a lack of support from their superiors and the community.
Mitchell said the current situation is not as dire. But he said that the two sides are reaching a boiling point and that they need to talk about the issues.
"The last thing taxpayers want to see is finger-pointing," Mitchell said. "The last thing the rank and file want to hear is, it's their fault."
Mitchell said he thought some of High's frustrations were misdirected. "If troops are underperforming, then I think their commanding officers need to answer to that," he said.
He also said High is doing the best he can with a badly understaffed force.
"Melvin is being a good soldier to Jack Johnson, he really is," Mitchell said. "Clearly, he needs help. Clearly, he needs more officers."
The number of officers in the department is in dispute. The union has said the force has 1,257 members; the county tallies 1,347.
Meanwhile, the debate about how to deploy officers is churning. High is using an approach involving "community service areas"; officers prefer the more traditional way of carving up the county into police beats.
High restructured how communities are patrolled, making each officer responsible for an area of about 1,500 residents. The officers were supposed to get to know the people living in their area.
The chief credits community policing programs with reducing violent crime in Norfolk on his watch, including an annual homicide rate that went from about 90 to about 30.
Alston said the policing plan has not worked in Prince George's because not enough officers are on the street at any given time to make it effective. Officers on the street are too busy to walk the beat and conduct other proactive policing, he said.
Alston has been skeptical of the chief's plan since its inception in late 2003, when he said he did not believe the force had enough manpower to cover the community service areas. On any given shift, he said, 67 officers are patrolling the county's 500 square miles.
He said he wants to increase officers on patrol to 102, which would ease some of their workload. To accomplish that, he suggested a shuffling of positions, including taking sworn officers out of some civilian jobs and reassigning some others who are working for specialized task forces.
Alston also wants to reduce the size of police officers' patrol areas, returning to the strategy that was in place before High took over the department. He said the number of patrol officers, who he called the backbone of the department, has decreased from 488 last year to 463 this year.
The result of the decrease, he said, is a lengthier response time -- sometimes as long as two hours -- when someone calls police for help. Additionally, he said, reducing the size of a patrol area would return officers to having "beat pride" and would reestablish strong relationships with community members, something Alston said has been lost in recent years.
Alston said he will continue to try to discuss his idea with High.