The process of selecting a new chief of police for Prince George's County is now generating a great amount of controversy, both within and outside the county. Both the county and the metroplitan press have found it a topic for voluminous news copy and editorial comment; telephones are busy; investigations are under way up and down the East Coast; and countless meetings have been called. The county council will hold its public hearing on Monday, and at that time will probably vote on the nomination. That vote may or may not result in a new chief. But regardless of the outcome, the controversy will not subside for some time. Why has the nomination of James R. Taylor become such an issue? s
There are many factors. If Prince George's were a small, homogeneous, dull jurisdiction, the selection of a new chief of police would probably be a routine matter attracting little attention. But the county does not fit that description. Prince George's is a complex social, economic and governmental mosaic slicing through the mainstream of modern urban America and its problems. It has the largest, and still growing, black population in the Washington suburbs. It has the largest number of poor and middle-income residents in a suburban area. but at the same time, it has many upper-income communities and a thriving local economy. About half of the county's citizens live in apartments, and a sizable portion of them are transient and will spend only a few months at any one address.
There are 28 municipalities, many with their own police. Yet the county police are engaged in law enforcement in all of these municipalities. In addition, the county is served by the police of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission and by the Maryland State Police, the U.S. Park Police and military police associated with Andrews Air Force Base. All of these factors make the job of police chief in Prince George's a difficult one under the best of circumstances.
But there is more. Over the past several years there have been repeated charges of police brutality within the county, and the small number of black officers on the force in proportion to the county's black population has been and continues to be an issue. These issues have served to throw a publicity spotlight on the department and especially on the office of chief.
Nearly all agree that the Prince George's County police department has made significant strides toward greater professionalism in recent years, and is learning to better communicate with the people it serves. No one wants to lose that progress, or the momentum toward change that made it happen. The department is a relatively small, albeit highly professional, force. To be effective, it must have the support of the people of the county.
Once the county executive nominated James Taylor, concerned residents immediately began an intensive review of his qualifications, as viewed from their perspective and interests. That process is now nearing its end, and the findings have been mixed. Whether the judgments being made and publicly stated are accurate or not may never be known, but they are clearly one source of the present controversy. Given the need for community support of a police chief in the county, the judgments being expressed are serious matters, and the county council must take them into account as we perform our charter role.
One group is directly affected; the men and women of our police force are naturally concerned about the qualities of their next leader, who may one day control their actions in life-and-death situations. I and many others believe it regrettable that the Fraternal Order of Police, in effect the union for our police, has mixed existing labor-management controversies between it and the county executive with its judgments about the chief-nominee. But the right of our police to be concerned about the department's leadership should be respected, and their expressed concerns on the merits of the nominee must be considered.
Another factor is the design of our county government and its current political makeup. We too often forget that the form of government in Prince George's County was designed to generate controversy, a natural result of having a county council and a separately elected county executive. Political and personality clashes between the present county executive and county council members merely heighten the natural controversy found in our charter form of government. My frank opinion is that our differences are overstated by the press; nevertheless, they do exist. Probably any nomination for police chief in Prince George's at this time in our history would be controversial. But there is another element that has superheated the situation: our metropolitan press.
The heart of the selection process under charter is the choice by the county executive of a nominee. For this procedure to work most effectively, it is desirable that secrecy by maintained throughout. This allows the county executive to review calmly the available talent and encourages prospective nominees to come forward without fear of repercussions from their present employers.
In the past few months in Prince George's County, however, the press published the name of every rumored nominee, sometimes before the person had even been contacted. This worked to discourage some possible nominees from coming forward, and only added to the length of the process. A greater circumspection and respect for the charter process by the press might well have resulted in a larger field of candidates and a more rapid selection.
Once the nomination was made, the press descended upon the county council, seeking expressions of support for or opposition to the nominee. Again, the charter process of a public hearing followed by a decision based on the evidence presented was not allowed to work -- all in the interest of obtaining material for a news story.
I do not argue with the right of the public to know, or of the press to report legitimate news. But in this instance, the press has not just reported the news but instead has tended to cause events, which could then be reported. In the course of this, the orderly procedures of the county charter have been subverted and the citizens ill served.
We will soon know the disposition of the nomination of James Taylor. If the nomination fails, it is my fervent hope that this time all concerned will allow the charter process to work as it was intended. The county executive must be given time, and, above all, the secrecy of his search process must be respected. Then, we must have a more orderly consideration of the nomination. Otherwise, the present spectacle might well be repeated. I have faith that in the end the process will work, as it has so often in the past.