Howard County Times

Howard Co. police chief retiring

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Months after being thrust into a national spotlight as the face of Howard County's response to a murder-suicide at The Mall in Columbia, Police Chief William J. McMahon said Thursday that he is retiring in June after 28 years with the department.

McMahon, 51, who has served nearly eight years as chief, said he had picked the date of June 30 four years ago when he signed up for a deferred retirement payment program.


"The timing is just right," McMahon said in a telephone interview. "I had some long-range plans that this would be the date. … I'm blessed. I still love what I'm doing day after day."

McMahon said Maj. Gary Gardner, a 30-year member of the department, has been named by Howard County Executive Ken Ulman to take over command of the department of 649 full-time sworn and civilian employees with a budget of just under $100 million.


McMahon was acting chief when Ulman named him to the top job soon after he was elected in 2006.

"I think the world of him and the job he's done," Ulman said Thursday. He credited McMahon for innovations that helped to reduce crime and for his steady, calm leadership after the mall shooting on Jan. 25.

As one of the first ranking officers on the scene at the mall that Saturday when two people were killed and the gunman shot himself, McMahon supervised scores of police officers from Howard and other jurisdictions, then delivered news updates before dozens of reporters, photographers and videographers on an event that attracted national coverage.

Last month, McMahon conducted a news briefing to review the evidence police had gathered. He described the gunman as a young man in declining mental health preoccupied with violence, particularly the Columbine High School mass shooting in Colorado in 1999.

The two killings and a suicide in one day in Columbia took place in an affluent, suburban county of 300,000 people that ordinarily experiences four or five homicides a year.

McMahon, who joined the department as a patrol officer in 1986, is set to depart after years of falling crime in the county. He attributes that in part to efforts under his administration to crack down on repeat offenders and domestic violence.

"I'm very, very proud of what our crime numbers look like compared to what they looked like in 2006," said McMahon. He said the number of overall crimes is down about 9 percent between 2006 and 2012 — auto theft down by half, robberies cut by a bit more than a third, burglaries down 10 percent.

The county had never seen a killing inside the mall since it opened as a central shopping, eating and gathering spot for the planned community of Columbia in 1971.


That changed when a 19-year-old man with a shotgun killed two people who worked in the Zumiez skate shop on the upper level, wounded another person, then shot and killed himself. No connection was found between the gunman, Darion Marcus Aguilar, of College Park, and the two people he killed, Brianna Benlolo, 21, and Tyler Johnson, 25.

McMahon said he and his wife, Annette, were in his Chevy Tahoe near Arundel Mills in Hanover that morning en route to a weekend in St. Michaels when the police radio erupted with chatter about a shooting at the mall. At first, McMahon thought it was a drill and wondered why he hadn't been told about it, but soon realized otherwise.

He was at the scene in about 15 minutes, he said, as the police contingent grew from about 20 to nearly 100 officers from Howard County and more from elsewhere. One of the challenges at first, he said, was managing all the police from outside the county.

He said the department had worked with mall managers for years to prepare for such a situation, including a drill a year before at the mall that he called "eerily similar" to the real event.

"If that was 'Game Day,' " McMahon said, "it was a game we began planning for six, seven years ago."

While he was accustomed to dealing with one or two local reporters at a time, McMahon stepped out of the mall a couple of hours after the shooting to face several dozen, many of whom were asking questions he could not yet answer.


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It was a new experience for him, but he said he "felt comfortable we were doing exactly what we said … giving out as much information as quickly as we could that was accurate."

County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, who represents the mall area, said the calm, collected presence that national TV audiences saw was no act.

"That is who he was in the midst of that," Sigaty said. She said he told her that day he felt at ease knowing that he "had the right people in the right jobs handling the situation."

She also gave McMahon credit for keeping the police close to neighborhoods by expanding a program of community policing and keeping in touch with Columbia village and homeowners' associations.

Donna Wells, executive director of the quasi-public county Mental Health Authority, said McMahon has been a "real strong partner with community services," meaning more people are getting the help they need from an array of social service and mental health agencies.

McMahon grew up in Montgomery County and served two years with the Maryland-National Capital Park Police before joining the Howard County department. He said he hopes to be remembered for having fulfilled the aspiration he had when he decided as a teenager that he wanted to be a police officer: "to help people and make the community a better place."