It has long been conventional practice in Howard County to change police chiefs with new administrations. We suspect Charles I. Ecker's decision to fire Police Chief Frederick W. Chaney, however, is rooted in more than tradition.
Despite a reputation as a modernizer, Chief Chaney has presided over a department increasingly perceived as hostile by segments of the community it is charged with protecting. Undue-force complaints rose 36 percent between 1988 and 1989. There were nearly as many allegations in the first half of this year as in all of 1989.
Among the worst of these have been high-profile incidents involving teen-agers and minorities. There was the hanging death of a youth who earlier this year lodged a brutality complaint. More recently, two Laurel families claimed to have been terrorized by masked Howard County police officers in a futile drug raid. What some see as a pattern of abuse has earned the department the NAACP's "Dirty Harry Award." As if all this weren't enough, Chief Chaney's methods in modernizing and professionalizing the force earned him enemies within the department.
His supporters point out that Chief Chaney did much to bring the department up to speed in modern police methodology and equipment, switching to 9-mm semiautomatic pistols and creating special units to combat drug trafficking and child abuse. In the end, though, he became the lightning rod for public dissatisfaction with Howard's police force, living proof that a bad public image can outweigh even the best reforms.
There is considerable debate over whether Chief Chaney should have been let go. The next step may prove considerably more difficult, though. Howard's embattled, demoralized police department needs a strong, professional manager capable of bridging the gap with youths and minority communities. The new chief must also command the respect of his troops, many of whom are confused about how they are viewed in some segments of the community.
Howard already is seen by some as a county with a "police problem," an image neighboring Prince George's County is only now beginning to shake. With a new chief comes the opportunity to reverse this slide.