HERE'S SOME friendly advice: Don't have a fender bender in Prince George's County. Or, if you do, don't expect the police to show up anytime soon. Also, good luck getting prompt action from the police if you hear shots fired, want to report a stolen car or missing person, or care to complain about a party that's out of control. In fact, response times from Prince George's police are so slow that some people who dial 911 might as well take in dinner or a movie after they hang up the phone rather than wait, fingers drumming, for a patrol car to arrive at the scene.

That's the thrust of an article by The Post's Jamie Stockwell, who reported that the county's police force is so understaffed and has made so few patrol officers available to respond to calls from the pesky public, that hours-long waits are the norm for incidents deemed less than urgent. In one example, it took police almost two hours to appear at the scene of a five-car pileup on Allentown Road; in another, more than two hours for a report of gunshots fired. And then there was the poor soul who called to report a stolen car around breakfast time -- and was still waiting for a patrol car as the dinner hour rolled around.

Several factors are at work here. An obvious one is that plenty of real emergencies and serious crimes occur in Prince George's -- homicides, burglaries in progress and accidents with injuries -- and the triage system employed by police justifiably assigns a higher priority to them than to run-of-the-mill calls. The police department notes that its patrol officers have been overwhelmed and stretched thin by false alarms from malfunctioning or misprogrammed home security systems. And there's no denying that fierce competition for qualified recruits among dozens of law enforcement agencies in this region, especially since Sept. 11, 2001, has made the search for fresh recruits more challenging than ever.

But that doesn't get the county or the police off the hook. The truth is that the department is badly short-handed and has been on and off for years, and until recently officials have been lackadaisical about adding police recruits fast enough. Three months ago, County Executive Jack B. Johnson announced that his proposed countywide budget of nearly $2 billion would include the hiring and training of 150 new police officers; he points out that his administration is increasing the police budget faster than any previous administration. What he didn't mention is that over the course of the coming year about 85 police officers are expected to quit or retire from the force of 1,250 to 1,300 officers. So even if the 150 recruits can be found and trained in a year -- a very big if -- the department will still be well short of its authorized strength of 1,420 officers. What's more, the county's goal of having at least 1,400 officers on the payroll has remained essentially unchanged since the early 1990s, even as its county's population has boomed. In other words, Mr. Johnson is struggling mightily to attain a level that has probably been inadequate for years.

According to a police union audit, just 39 percent of the force, or 488 officers, was assigned to respond to calls this spring; that compares with around half the officers in other suburban jurisdictions. The department insists other officers are available to respond to calls even if they are not assigned to patrols. No matter. The point is that there are too few officers in the department and too few on the street, and they are too slow to deal with the range of complaints to be expected in a fast-growing suburban county.