It was May 1998 when Charles Ramsey, the new chief of D.C. police, sat in my dining room, eating barbecue and discussing the needs of his department with a small group of officers and officials.

At one point a lieutenant told his chief, "Sir, our fear is that you will get overwhelmed by the dysfunction you will confront."

Ramsey's reply: "I don't get overwhelmed."

Now, after a little more than a year of running the most dysfunctional big-city police force in the country, the chief may not be feeling quite so cocky. Already a small but vocal contingent, disappointed by the chief's pace of reform, is ready to throw him overboard.

But the chief has made significant progress in the past year: Station facilities are vastly improved, the vehicle fleet is no longer an embarrassment, significant technological enhancements are going on-line and his management team at the training academy has vastly improved that operation.

But citizens judge their police by the quality of the service at street level, and to score well there, the chief needs quality, motivated officers and dynamic officials. Ramsey will rise or fall based on his ability to empower his high-performing officers and officials and toss out the trash.

During the Barry years, the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department became home to an array of thugs, slackers and scam artists. Now it has, by my unofficial count, about 900 first-rate officers. About 1,400 other officers perform at a satisfactory to poor level but could and would do a better job if they were properly trained and supervised.

That leaves about 1,200 below-par officers and officials who are sucking the life out of the department. They range from young street officers to veteran assistant chiefs, and they come in all colors and both sexes.

These bad officers cause good officers to leave the force, and they are the main contributors to citizens' feeling unsafe on the streets of Washington. Some of these bad officers -- through their apathy, misconduct and malfeasance -- actively endanger the public safety and the safety of their fellow officers.

Members of the deadwood group don't arrive at work on time, and they don't do much work when they eventually do appear. They abuse sick leave, injury leave, stress leave and pregnancy leave as well as the "light duty" status. These officers accept no discipline without challenge, no matter how obvious their misconduct. Those who attempt to discipline them, or make them work, often are attacked as monsters -- or racists when the race card can be played. Some officials look the other way rather than become the target of intramural nastiness.

Purging the department of such malcontents and deadwood is the toughest job that Ramsey faces. Officers ranked as captains and below have many civil service protections to fight discipline and terminations, although for ranks of inspector and above, house cleaning should be easier. Ramsey now has had the time to evaluate his officers, and he must move forcefully against senior staff who are in over their heads.

The good news for Ramsey is that some of his senior staff have served him with distinction. Commander Rodney Monroe has turned the once dismal 6th District into a treasured assignment. Assistant Chief Al Broadbent has made an admirable start in rebuilding the credibility of the academy, and Commander Ross Swope has proven to be the finest and most underutilized resource in the department. The Redemption Award, however, goes to an officer I've often criticized in the past, Commander Winston Robinson, whose innovative leadership of the tough 7th District has crime down and officer morale way up.

Equally good news is that, by my count, 10 captains and at least that many lieutenants are capable of moving into key management positions and vastly strengthening the overall department.

The true extent of the success of these new "young Turks" will depend on how thoroughly Ramsey is able to clear the deadwood out of their path. The same criteria likely also will determine the degree of success of the chief himself.

-- Carl Rowan Jr.

a lawyer and former FBI agent, is spokesman for the Alliance for Public Safety.