Prince George's County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan has told Acting Police Chief Joseph D. Vasco that the department veteran has been dropped from consideration of police chief because of public suspicion that he participated in a police "death squad" 12 years ago.
Vasco, who has managed the county police force since the retirement of Chief John W. Rhoads on June 30, had been considered the frontrunner for the chief's post because he has had the strong support of a majority of the County Council and the county's police union.
Hogan said yesterday, however, that he was opposed to sending a new chief into the job "with two strikes against him."
The Washington Post reported allegations in February that Vasco helped arrange convenience store holdups in which two suspects were fatally shot by police. According to a fellow officer and a former police informant, Vasco chose the time and place of the suspects' holdups and arranged for police to stake out the convenience stores.
Vasco has denied the allegations, and county police officials have said an internal investigation cleared him of wrongdoing. The charges are still under investigation by the state police.
"I have to appoint a chief that the black community is comfortable with," Hogan said. "That's one problem with Vasco. Rightly or wrongly, the allegations about the death squad created a lot of suspicion about Vasco in the black community and in the community at large.
"I don't think that's fair to him, but I wouldn't want to appoint him chief and have him have to start out his first few months trying to correct that problem."
Vasco said yesterday that he had no comment on Hogan's decision.
With the elimination of Vasco as a candidate, Hogan conceded he has few potential candidates within the department, and the County Council already has indicated it would oppose bringing in a new police chief from the outside.
Hogan said that Vincent duCellier, the only lieutenant colonel in the police department other than Vasco, "had not scored well" with a selection panel, headed by former D.C. police chief Maurice J. Cullinane, which studied applicants for the job earlier this summer.
Charles R. Kelly, a high-ranking civilian in the department who was once under consideration, also has been eliminated from the selection pool, the county executive said.
"We still have a number of people who have applied from the department and there are some very talented majors and captains," Hogan said. "But there is a question about whether they have enough experience at this point."
County Council members contacted yesterday said they disagreed with Hogan's assessment. Some were openly irritated by the decision on Vasco.
"Irregardless of Mr. Hogan's thinking, it's an absolutely necessary qualification for me that the new chief come from inside the department," said council member Gerard T. McDonough. "I believe that is the feeling of the majority of the council."
"I strongly supported Vasco for the position as chief," said council Vice Chairman David G. Hartlove, "and I see no reason to go outside of the county to get someone we don't know, unless the executive has good and solid reasons -- rather than personal and political reasons."
"The selection process has been botched up from the beginning," said council member Sue V. Mills. "I will not support anyone from outside Prince George's."
A majority of the council could veto Hogan's selection for chief.
Laney Hester, the president of the county's Fraternal Order of Police, which represents rank-and-file officers, also reacted angrily.
"After all his years in law enforcement, Hogan is now presuming somebody guilty until proven innocent," Hester said. "If Hogan is considering a D.C. official for police chief, he'd better reconsider. None of the outside candidates are better qualified than our own people."
Sources said yesterday that Hogan already has focused on candidates outside the department. One of those reportedly is Robert W. Klotz, deputy chief for special operations on the District force.
Hogan, however, denied he favors Klotz. "We are still looking at a number of people," he said. "We are looking at some new applicants, and at some of the old applicants as well."
Klotz said yesterday he was interviewed by Hogan in early July after he applied for the chief's job but has not been contacted since then. He said he knew he was under consideration and would take the position if it were offered.
The selection panel headed by Cullinane originally recommended three candidates for the chief's job, but by yesterday all but one -- Wesley A. Pomeroy, special assistant to the Drug Enforcement Administration -- had been publicly eliminated from consideration.
"We're looking for the ideal, and I want to be sure I pick the person who comes closest to the ideal," Hogan said. "The council's feelings [about not picking an outsider] are not going to affect my decision-making."
Police officials and Hogan aides also said yesterday that a major reorganization of the police department proposed by Vasco had been held up until a new chief is selected. "Vasco came in with a good concept," Hogan aide Jack McHale said, "but we told him we wanted the new chief to see it before we put it into effect."
"I think Joe Vasco has done an outstanding job as acting chief," Hogan said. "I told him that this is not the last time Prince George's will be looking for a police chief in the next few years -- and he's still a young man."
Vasco is 44.