Every taxpayer, regardless of age, economic status or political affiliation, agrees that, if government does nothing else, it must protect the public safety. Everybody wants top-notch police protection. So Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary's recent appointment of Acting Chief Robert A. Beck as head of the police department may be the most important hire he ever makes.
Time will tell, of course, but it looks as if Mr. Gary has made a good choice. Chief Beck's quiet demeanor may not be the stuff of TV police dramas, but his credentials are solid: 27 years of law enforcement experience; management experience; a pending master's degree from a police program at Johns Hopkins University; a good reputation. The harshest criticism that can be leveled at Chief Beck is that, as acting chief, he indulged in too public and personal a denunciation of a corporal who got involved politically in last year's election.
Predictably, there has been some grumbling about why the county bothered to search nationwide for a police chief, only to end up choosing one of its own. But unless a force is troubled by internal corruption -- and this one is not -- why not promote insiders who compare favorably to candidates from other places? A home-grown police chief knows the force, understands the community and has a personal stake in it.
Chief Beck's job will not be easy. Sheets of statistics showing a reduction in crime are not enough. Overall, county crime is already dropping, yet crime continues to be the citizens' biggest worry. People do not feel safe. Chief Beck must change that. How? By controlling crime through prevention and apprehension of criminals, certainly. But also by inspiring confidence in the police. People need to see the police in their communities. (Fortunately, the county is giving Chief Beck more officers to put on the streets.) They need to see police leaders take a firm stand against officer misconduct; it's hard to have confidence in the police if they're doing wrong, too.
Finally, people need to know their chief. Most countians have never heard of Robert Beck. He needs to go to their community meetings, walk their streets, know their fears. He needs to become a symbol of law and order -- familiar, respected and so trusted that they would willingly place their lives in his hands.