Outgoing Howard County police chief reflects on tenure, from Columbia mall shooting to memorial garden

Howard County Police Chief Gary L. Gardner.
Howard County Police Chief Gary L. Gardner. (Doug Kapustin/For BSMG)

On Jan. 16, 1984, Gary L. Gardner had his first day with the Howard County Police Department, as a patrolman in West Columbia. He would go to spend 35 years with the police department, climbing the ranks and eventually becoming chief.

On Dec. 31, Gardner will walk the hallowed halls of the department one final time.


“While this was a challenging decision, I look forward to the future and spending more time with family,” Gardner said in a statement released by the police department Thursday. “I am proud of what we have accomplished over the past four and a half years, and I know the agency will continue to build upon a foundation of excellence.”

His retirement announcement Thursday came three days after Calvin Ball was sworn in as county executive.

Calvin Ball, who has served 12 years on the Howard County Council, was sworn in on Monday as the first black person to hold the office of Howard County Executive. The Howard County Council was also sworn in.

Ball, who will select a new chief, has replaced a number of key staff members from the administration of Allan Kittleman, the one-term Republican who lost his re-election bid.

A Ball spokesman declined to comment on when asked how many police chief candidates have been interviewed.

Ball thanked Gardner for his years of service and wished the outgoing chief “well in his future endeavors,” in a statement released by the police department.

“He was a pillar of great character in our community,” Ball said. We appreciate him and his family for their unwavering commitment to our safety and security.”


Gardner is the second top county law enforcement office to depart this year.

Bill McMahon, the former county police chief who was appointed Howard County sheriff two years ago, lost his bid for a full four-year term in last month’s election.

Gardner became chief when McMahon retired from the post in 2014.

McMahon, said the two work very closely for the decade of his career. He recommended Gardner to take over as chief when he retired.

“He’s very committed to the police department and the community,” McMahon said. “The police department really becomes part of your life because you’re there so much.”

In neighboring Baltimore County, County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., who was sworn into office this week, said Wednesday that he intends to retain current police Chief Terrence B. Sheridan for six months while he conducts a national search for a replacement.

Gardner said in a statement he has “been blessed to serve alongside the finest men and women in law enforcement, as well as an exceptional civilian and volunteer staff.”

The police department has 478 sworn officers and 221 full-time civilians, according to Sherry Llewellyn, a police spokeswoman.

When asked how Gardner's retirement will affect personnel and if any positions are at the pleasure of the chief, Llewellyn said in an email these questions will be “for the new chief, once he or she is appointed.”

Gardner’s tenure

Gardner has served in nearly every capacity in the department, including a decade as deputy chief of administration, nearly three years as the chief of staff, three years as the commander of the criminal investigations bureau, nearly five year as a public information officer and four years in the patrol division, according to a timeline provided by the police department.

He assumed his role as chief on July 1, 2014 and on his second day, Gardner sat down with the Howard County Times for an interview.

Gardner recalled the fatal shooting at The Mall in Columbia, where two store employees were killed after a gunman opened fire on the second floor of the building before killing himself. The shooting happened roughly six months before Gardner assumed his role as chief.

After arriving at the mall, Gardner took over the role of incident commander, and was responsible for establishing a perimeter, conducting victim services, working with tactical commanders and coordinating with the mall.

“The take away for me: you never think – you plan for, but never think – it's going to be your community,” Gardner said in the July 2014 interview.

During his tenure, Gardner established the community outreach division, working with community partnerships to make the county a safe place to live and work; expanded the department’s mental unit to three police officers and one mental health professional; established youth programs and expanded faith-based community partnerships.

On July 1, Gary Gardner replaced Bill McMahon as Chief of the Howard County Police Department. Gardner, 55, has been with the department since 1984, and has served in a variety of different roles: patrolman in West Columbia, researcher in the research and planning department, public information officer, detective in the criminal investigations division, patrol sergeant, chief of staff in the chief's office, deputy chief of operations and now chief of police.

Gardner’s accomplishments and contributions “have included crime-fighting and public safety strategies to address the county’s evolving population and changing needs,” police said.

He oversaw the realignment of patrol beats for improved response services as well as the implementation of a crime-analysis-driven system to better allocate resources in patrol operations.

The county’s state’s attorney’s office and the police department have had “a long standing relationship,” said Dario Broccolino, who is retiring from the top prosecutor job next month.

“We work primarily with the detectives on cases, we’re with them almost every step of the way,” Broccolino said. “You can stop here at any time up in this office and you'll find a detective up here.”

Broccolino said Gardner “has been a great guy to work with,” over the years.

Gardner also had a part in the development of the James N. Robey Public Safety Training Center, named after former Howard police chief, county executive and state senator, James “Jim” Robey. The center is used by police officers.

Robey, who had a 32-year-career with the police department, seven of which being chief, did not respond to a request for comment.

Gardner also created the department’s Police Memorial Courtyard and Garden.

“The police memorial is something that is near and dear to my heart,” Gardner said in 2014. “We didn't have anything in the department that recognized those who had fallen in the line of duty. I thought: this agency is getting larger, that's something we should recognize and people should see every day.”


Gardner is a graduate of the F.B.I’s National Academy, a 2006 graduate of Leadership Howard County, a nonprofit that seeks to empower local leaders, and has a master’s degree from Eastern Kentucky University.


He is also an active supporter of Maryland Special Olympics and other law enforcement-related charities.

Gardner is a member of the F.B.I. National Academy Associates, International Chiefs of Police Association and is the immediate past-president of the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association.

John Newnan, executive director of the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association and a 28-year veteran of the Howard police department said Gardner “was so sincere and committed in everything that he did.”

Newnan said he “had the honor and privilege working with him [Gardner] in different two ways,” during their shared time at the police department and Gardner was his boss in the Maryland Chiefs. Newnan retired from the police department in 2014.

“Chief Gardner was an amazing role model to all of us, he led by example,” Newman said. “It’s certainly going to be a loss for the citizens of Howard County.”

With reporting from The Baltimore Sun.

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