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Moving forward in Howard [Commentary]

January 25, nine shotgun blasts rang through crowded passageways inside The Mall in Columbia. In seconds, three lives were claimed, and Howard County joined Newtown, Conn.; Aurora, Colo. and too many others on a grim list of places where a sense of security has been ripped away by gun violence.

Now that the initial shock has dimmed, we are entering a next stage — figuring out how to move forward and do all we can to prevent such tragedies whenever possible.

We cannot allow this to become the new normal, so we look for ways to adjust our programs and priorities. We have done much in Howard County to ensure the protection of our citizens, but we realize that we — and our neighbors — must do even more.

The task includes a review of interrelated components: One is effective diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. Another is the proper level of security in our public places, which includes ensuring that our community and our responders have the training and resources to handle emergencies. And the potential misuse of guns in our society must continue to be examined.

In Howard County, we have made progress in each area.

My administration has greatly expanded the availability of Mobile Crisis Teams, which pair police and mental health professionals to respond to calls. We have created a Critical Incident Training Program, which improves police understanding of how to deal with individuals with mental health problems. My most recent budget included funding for a full-time mental health coordinator in the Police Department, on the job since November.

Last October, we launched an innovative anti-bullying strategy called Stand Up HoCo, which allows for anonymous reporting through a mobile app and online. Studies show that victims of bullying are far more likely to harm themselves and others and to suffer from depression and other mental illnesses.

Also last year, we completed a successful gun buyback and lock distribution program that allowed residents to safely dispose of 631weapons. They were destroyed and will never again be able to inflict harm — accidental or intended.

Given recent events, the community will naturally ask if all that is enough. A young man knew he was ill but could not tell family and friends who were best positioned to help. He bought a weapon legally — in part because he had no criminal record and no contact with the mental health system that would have restricted such a person. And he hid the weapon as he entered one of the most popular public spaces in a county of 300,000 people.

Given those circumstances, here is where I believe we should focus next: We need more people aware of the signs of mental illness and what can be done to help. Maryland helped bring to this country a Mental Health First Aid Program, which provides training to help teachers and others identify illnesses and steer friends and family to resources. The program should be expanded to increase the number of certified Mental Health First Aid trainers, with more key personnel in places such as schools, child serving agencies and community colleges taking this important course. Our awareness of mental health needs to become as basic and critical as CPR. In our push to make Howard County a model public health community, I pledge to commit resources toward this goal in my next budget.

We must also strengthen our commitment to public safety training. At the mall, police and the public showed their skill. But it is clear that our readiness must remain as high as possible. My next budget will include expanded public safety resources, in personnel and for training, because we know that quick response saves lives.

Maryland has been on the leading edge of sensible gun regulations and in the past year adopted limits on weapons purchases and waiting-day restrictions. We should take a fresh look at our options to keep guns out of the hands of those with mental illness.

To the family and friends of victims Tyler Johnson and Brianna Benlolo, words can do little to ease your pain. But we can commit ourselves to filling gaps exposed by this tragedy. With a strengthened commitment to mental health and public safety training, Howard County will do just that.

Ken Ulman is the County Executive of Howard County. His email is kulman@howardcountymd.gov.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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