finally," said James N. Robey, 50, when County Executive Charles I. Ecker appointed him police chief yesterday.

"It's a choice that means a lot to me and a lot to the men," Robey said. Robey, the department's second-in-command since 1981, is the first chief in 12 years tohave been promoted from the ranks.

He urged Ecker at a news conference yesterday to exempt the department from the 16 percent cut the executive is asking of all departments except public schools and the community college.

If Ecker is unrelenting, Robey must trim 55 officers and civilian employees from the department in addition to eliminating merit raises, longevity bonuses, tuition reimbursement, shift differential and clothing allowances.

Although response times for emergency service would remain thesame, non-emergency complaints like thefts would be handled more slowly due to the reduction in personnel, Robey said. Automobile accidents involving property damage only would no longer be investigated by police.

A reduction in the number of officers allowed to drive police cars home would mean that many cases now handled by off-duty officers -- 2,031 cases last year -- will now have to be handled by a reduced squad of on-duty officers, Robey said. Patrol officers also would have to do more "crime-scene processing," he added.

Robey takes command of the department at a time when it is under intense scrutiny.

Last year, the state NAACP said Howard was among the five worst counties in the state in terms of police brutality complaints and gave it a dubious "Dirty Harry" award.

The department was also criticized for its handling of an investigation of the death of a Columbia teen-ager found hanged from a high school backstop. The teen and his twin brother claimed county police had beaten them during a misdemeanor arrest several months earlier.

Friends and family of the teen doubted his death was self-inflicted. Investigations by state police and a grand jury found no contrary evidence, however.

A 21-member citizens commission is evaluating the police department and will report its findings to Ecker in June.

Controversies are nothing new forthe 24-year veteran Robey. He has served under two chiefs who were fired when new administrations took over county government. Each time,the department was being assailed in public.

In 1986, the police union placed full-page ads in a local newspaper calling for the chiefto be fired, and the county Human Rights Commission issued a report saying the department was slow to hire and promote minority employees.

In 1990, the police union criticized the chief for the way he disciplined three officers involved in the Columbia teen's death. Robeysaid Tuesday he would follow through with the discipline imposed by his predecessor.

A 1959 graduate of Howard High School, Robey joined the force in June 1966. Two years later, he received the department's police officer of the year award and advanced rapidly after that.

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