NOTWITHSTANDING improvements in its work and reputation, the Prince George's County police force has been dogged for years by questions about its handling of racial minorities. Accusations of police brutality have recurred, and the fact that these were investigated without any citizen involvement in the process has been an important barrier to building citizen confidence in the force. Fortunately, the county is now a step closer to a system in which respected civilians can review all complaints against police officers and make recommendations to the county's chief of police.

The Prince George's County Council has approved creation of a seven-member Citizen Complaint Oversight Panel. County Executive Parris Glendening came up with the original idea, and county police officers have supported it.

Under the new arrangement, citizen complaints will continue to be investigated by both police internal affairs units and by the county's human relations commission. The results of these investigations will be forwarded to the civilian panel for its review. Any officer accused of an offense against a citizen will have the right to speak before the panel, and if the officer chooses that route, the complainant will also have the right to appear.

The civilian panel will be able to say whether the two investigations were thorough and fair, and to add its own recommendations. The county police chief will weigh all three recommendations before deciding whether officers should be punished or exonerated. If the police chief disagrees with the oversight panel, he must publicly state why. The panel will submit an annual report to the public.

The county government should move promptly into the sensitive task of selecting a citizen oversight panel that will take up this new responsibility. Several municipalities and counties around the nation have shown that this sort of citizen involvement can be crucial in building trust between civilians and police officers. Prince George's is right in following their lead.