PRINCE GEORGE'S County Police Chief Melvin C. High may think he's doing a grand job of fighting crime -- that's what he keeps saying -- but the evidence isn't there. It's grimly official now: The shooting of a man in Riverdale Park on Nov. 21 raised the number of homicides in the county this year to a record 155, topping the 1991 total of 154 killings. As of yesterday evening, the total had risen to 159. As the surge of violence continues, the reassurances of Chief High that his battle plan will deliver better days are neither comforting nor believable.
When people are being slain at the rate of about one every other day, it becomes increasingly clear that something in Chief High's crime-fighting strategy -- trumpeted last year as the way to get a grip on the problem -- is amiss. The moves he announced at the time seemed good. The emphasis was to be on community-oriented policing; putting officers in closer contact with residents; and targeting guns, drugs and gangs for special attention. The chief notes that 82 percent of the homicides involve guns, and 67 percent of the incidents are drug-related.
At least now Chief High has stopped blaming the rank-and-file officers, as he did over the summer. He and County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) have yet to hold themselves accountable for any failings, and calling members of the force slackers hardly boosted morale. Years of severe understaffing take their toll; community policing is not effective if the districts to be patrolled are huge and response times are slow. Detectives, who handle the county's most serious crimes, are professionals, but some of the most experienced have been leaving as murders, carjackings and rapes increase.
Mr. Johnson is belatedly seeking to hire more officers, but competition is stiff and the violence in Prince George's is less than alluring. Percy Alston, president of Prince George's Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 89, told The Post's Allison Klein recently that despite a stepped-up recruiting campaign, the department has about 1,300 sworn officers, which is more than 100 below the authorized strength.
Is there a sense of urgency? Attributing the soaring violence to population shifts, increased drug abuse and the growth of gangs may explain some of the law enforcement problems, but it doesn't fix them. Chief High is right in urging residents to explore why people are involved in drugs and why kids are joining gangs; the police alone cannot solve these problems. But the chief's apparent satisfaction with his plans -- and Mr. Johnson's apparent satisfaction with the chief -- are not reassuring.
"Next year, 2006, will be a better year," Chief High announced on Nov. 17. "I'm putting myself on the line for that. It takes a while for these things to come to fruition, but they are working." Prince George's is still experiencing signs of vitality, economic development and attractive, stable new neighborhoods. The good life in the county must not be jeopardized by seemingly unbridled violence. Prince George's needs and deserves a happier new year.