PICKING A NEW Police chief for any large and diverse jurisdiction is a delicate business -- but so far, Prince George's County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan has been less than smooth in his handling of this task. Though he learned months ago of Chief John W. Rhoads' decision to retire, Mr. Hogan still hasn't settled on a successor. Instead, citizens have been treated to a drawn-out, confusing selection process that has stirred up unfortunate anxieties among variuous groups in the county, including the county council.

After failing initially to find someone for the job, Mr. Hogan created a selection panel headed by former D.C. police Chief Maurice J. Cullinane. That panel submitted three names, but still no choice emerged. When Chief Rhoads left, Mr. Hogan chose Joseph D. Vasco, then second in command, to be acting chief -- even though an investigation was under way of Mr. Vasco's actions in connection with some 1967 police stakeouts that resulted in shootings of suspects in armed robberies allegedly arranged by the police. The investigation of that police group, which came to be known as the "Death Squad," is still not complete; yet now -- before the results of the final report have been made public -- Mr. Hogan has turned around and cited the allegations as grounds for dropping Mr. Vasco from consideration for the top job.

Either Mr. Hogan knows something abut this case that the public doesn't -- or he has unfairly presumed guilt on the part of Mr. Vasco. If he didn't want Mr. Vasco to be chief, so be it; Mr. Hogan should be free to consider someone else from the force -- or, despite the opposition of county council members and the police union -- someone else from outside the department, as he appears to be doing at this point. But his shilly-shallying on this important decision should have ended before now.