Veteran Albany police Cpl. Robert Ponder used to wear his uniform proudly in restaurants on his lunch break. But that changed over the past two years during which at least 16 of his fellow officers were dismissed or suspended -- some accused or convicted of crimes.

Charges ranged from simple battery to theft to having sex with a 14-year-old girl.

One was convicted of theft for stealing the wallet of a man seriously injured in a motorcycle accident. Another pleaded guilty to offering money to an undercover officer for sex. A third is accused of stealing Social Security numbers, using them to open unauthorized cell phone accounts and running up $5,000 in bills.

The biggest blow came in September, when Cpl. Andrew Hayslip, who had a history of domestic violence, drove his patrol car to his son's preschool and fatally shot his 4-year-old son, wounded the boy's mother, then killed himself. During the shootings, Hayslip was wearing his uniform.

Days later, the city forced Police Chief Bobby Johnson into retirement two months early.

So now, Ponder gets his meals at drive-through windows and eats in his cruiser. That way he does not have to hear the wisecracks about the police department's problems.

"The first thing they ask is, 'What's wrong with y'all?' " he said, noting that even some burglary victims have been reluctant to allow police into their homes out of concern that investigators would steal their remaining valuables.

"We're not all bad guys," said the officer, 35, who has considered resigning. "Sometimes the negative publicity puts you in a hole."

Officials in this southern Georgia city of 76,000 hope the worst is over. They have announced plans for an independent investigation of the 192-officer department to help restore public trust.

"I see this as a cleansing process," Mayor Willie Adams said. "It's good we identified these problems and are getting them out of the way."

Still unknown is how many additional officers may be charged as a result of a Georgia Bureau of Investigation inquiry that began in May. At the request of Dougherty County District Attorney Kenneth Hodges, the bureau is looking into allegations that some Albany officers may have worked part-time jobs during their police shifts.

"I certainly hope the current allegations are unfounded, but if they are not, we'll take appropriate action," Hodges said.

Even before the bureau stepped in, a police sergeant was charged with 50 counts of theft and violation of his oath of office for alleged "double-dipping," working a second job while getting paid by the city.

The department's problems began to surface under Johnson, who held the chief's job from 1997 until his forced retirement.

Brad Pope of the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council said his agency has investigated 70 Albany officers since 1986, most of them since the mid-1990s. Pope characterized the number of Albany investigations as "higher than average" for Georgia departments.

Johnson now is a part-time criminal justice instructor at Albany State University, teaching police-community relations and police administration.

Before Johnson's departure, a three-member panel, which included the city attorney and the city's human resources director, found that Johnson had ignored his department's hiring guidelines on at least nine occasions within 18 months. One of the officers Johnson hired, against the recommendations of a police hiring board, was charged with shoplifting last July.

Johnson himself was suspended for five days in 2002 for failing to report that he rear-ended a motorist with his police car. The accident went unreported until the other motorist went to the police department two days later seeking an accident report. By not reporting the accident, Johnson avoided mandatory drug and alcohol tests.

Johnson did not returned repeated messages left on his home answering machine, and his home address is unlisted.

Acting Police Chief Bob Boren, a 32-year law-enforcement veteran and a graduate of the FBI's National Academy, has inherited the task of restoring public confidence.

Boren credits his officers with a nearly 17 percent drop in Albany's crime rate this year.

"We've gone through some tough times," said Boren, who was the assistant chief under Johnson. "But we've identified the problems, and we've solved them. These men and women do a fine job, and they work hard."

While refusing to specifically comment on Johnson, Boren acknowledged, "We didn't follow the standards, and that hurt us."

Adams, the mayor, attributed the problems to "a relaxation of leadership and deviation from the standards we have in place."

Higher police salaries and the department's recent move to a new $14.5 million law enforcement center equipped with the latest crime-fighting gear should lift morale, said Boren, who spent the past eight years working on the building's design.

Boren's management style also seems to inspire the officers.

Cpl. Rob McAllister, a firearms instructor and member of the SWAT team, said he never saw Johnson around. But with Boren, "You know he's here. You know he's interested in you."

James "Junior" Burgess, the injured motorcyclist whose wallet was stolen by the investigating officer, said he has not lost confidence in his local police.

"You can't blame everybody because of one bad apple," said the construction worker, 28.

McAllister said the department's problems have been frustrating to him and many of his fellow officers.

"We hired some people who didn't meet the standards, and it came back to bite us," he said. "Trust is a hard thing to get, and it's even harder to rebuild."

"We're not all bad guys," Cpl. Robert Ponder, 35, said. "Sometimes the negative publicity puts you in a hole." The police department in Albany, Ga., has faced a series of high-profile incidents affecting more than a dozen officers.