PRINCE GEORGE'S COUNTY is about to get a new police chief -- and none too soon. County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan's overly drawn-out search already has taken its toll in qualified contenders. In the months since Mr. Hogan first learned that Chief John Rhoads was resigning, his failure to select a sucessor has stirred anxieties among various groups in the county, including the council -- which toyed for a while with a bad bill to ban the choice of a chief from outside the Prince George's department. Latest word from Mr. Hogan is that a chief should be named by Nov. 10 at the latest, and the selection of an outside expert has not been ruled out.

At least two outsiders who had been mentioned for the job apparently have withdrawn their names from consideration. Both men, Deputy D.C. Police Chief Robert W. Klotz and Assistant D.C. Chief Robert L. Rabe, were said to have been frustrated by the length of time the county has taken to make a decision. No wonder -- this pokey process has left all of the mentioned candidates in the middle of political cross fire between Mr. Hogan and the council, the union and the county and various interested citizens's groups.

The choice is said now to have been narrowed to a small group of candidates who are being evaluated by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. The primary consideration should be the candidates' ability to build on the record of Chief Rhoads in improving the reputation of the police force among black and white residents throughout the county. During his term as chief, the reality of civilized race relations did win significant recognition at the command level. The continued transformation of the force into an even more responsible and accountable corps of public servants and protectors is crucial.

Once a new chief is named, Mr. Hogan's past combativeness with members of the county council over matters large and petty should not enter into the members' consideration of the choice -- this is too important a decision. Those who put the reputation and the well-being of Prince George's ahead of partisan infighting should recognize how much is at stake.