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, a native of Frederick, attended Frederick Community College and Eastern Kentucky University. He graduated from EKU's public safety program and returned to Maryland, where he quickly identified Howard County and Montgomery County as potential landing spots.
"Everyone kept telling me Howard County was an up and coming department. It's worked out well for me so far," he said sitting in the conference room at the department's headquarters last week. On just his second day on the job, Gardner sat down with the Howard County Times/Columbia Flier for an interview about his past and the department's future.
Q: What drew you to be part of a local county police department, as opposed to a statewide program?
What drew me more to an agency like Howard, or Montgomery, is the very kind of work they do. In other words: State Police has always been focused on traffic safety, which is, of course, very important, and a part of what we do. This provided me with an opportunity to join a full-service department where there were many opportunities.
Q: Is there any specific initiative you are particularly proud of having been involved in?
The police memorial is something that is near and dear to my heart. 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.
When I became a deputy chief, having a role in changing the way we do business: for example, our analysis and information management system. ... We bring all the components of operations together once a month, and we review crime during that period and determine where we need to redirect our resources. Recently now, we are tackling traffic in the county and where we have the most problems. We want to make an impact. We want officers in their beats, and we want officers in those beats to engage the community, but also, when we know we have a burglary problem, for example, and it's in this particular area, we want them in those areas at those times. . ... I'm very proud of that; it ensures everyone is on the same page. I don't want anyone operating in a vacuum. I want everyone to know as much information as possible.
Q: What are some major challenges facing the department?
I would say, there are many things, but right now mental health issues is one of the biggest challenges facing law enforcement; not just here in Howard County, but across the country. Each and every week we see mass shootings in public places; whether it's a college or university, a work place, or now public venues like the Columbia mall. The one common denominator is mental health. Not everyone who has a mental health issue is a violent offender; I want to make that very clear. But the ones who are, or have the potential to be, we have to try and intervene as quickly as possible to prevent a tragedy like the Columbia mall. ... I think, over the next couple of years, it will remain one of the top priorities for agencies. We just can not let it continue; we have to take some action. We can't just develop great response plans; we have to be out in front of it.
Q: Talk about your role in the investigation of The Mall in Columbia shooting, and what did you learn from it?
It was a Saturday, once I learned of the incident I was there. I arrived 45 minutes into the call, and took over the role of incident commander. I was there for the entire time once I arrived until we opened the Columbia mall back up. [I was responsible for] working with the tactical commanders on extracting all the customers inside, establishing a perimeter, coordinating with the mall and conducting victim services with the mall retailers. The take away for me: you never think – you plan for, but never think – it's going to be your community. The one thing I think we have to prepare for is the enormous amount of support and resources you receive from other jurisdictions. They are there in an instant, sometimes before you can wrap your hands around everything. We are looking to tweak that aspect of it.
... I will say that the relationship we established with the mall, prior to the shooting, was very critical to a successful response. We had met with the mall management prior to. We practiced and staged scenarios at the mall, which led to the response we had. And also knowing those individuals when you get there: very, very critical. You've already established a trust with them and have worked with them.
Q: Let's get back to the mental health initiatives: talk about what County Executive Ken Ulman has proposed and how you think that will help further what's already been done.
Fortunately, he's realized it is not just one department that can take this issue on. He has brought on board a number of partners, anyone that may have some contact with mental health services: he's brought them all to the table. We've already reached out to a lot of those other components, but now we are all coming to the same table to look at those issues and how we can provide a better service. We are going to take a look at everything; everything is on the table, and I think it is time for that.
Q: As you know, there is a lot of redevelopment planned for downtown Columbia; it's going to change the landscape of what that area looks likes. Talk about how the department will have to adapt to keep up with that. Will there be any changes in the way you police that area?
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We do recognize that is an issue for us in the future. Initial seed money has been provided to study the needs, size and location of a [third police station]. That's a basic groundwork thing. We will also look at it from the perspective of deployment of our officers. We are looking at what types of patrols — I'm not saying what we are going to have because everything is on the table. We may have foot patrols, we've received approval for pathway patrol program, which will become an integral part of the redevelopment of Columbia.
Bikes, Segways, everything is on the table. I love the bike program. ... I want the presence and the visibility of the officers out there; they cover a lot of ground on bikes. They are interacting with public, getting a feel for what's going on in the community. That I see expanding when downtown Columbia branches out.
Q: One of the things that has come to my attention is increased recognition, or an increased desire to understand, human trafficking. Is there an increased awareness within the department, and are there any plans for policing that?
We do recognize the need. In the most recent budget, we are adding two detectives to the VICE unit to take a look and provide better service and investigation of that. Vernon Gray, administrator of human rights, is leading an internal task force here in the county; we have membership on that task force. Their final report is coming up soon. I will await the findings of that task force and we will proceed accordingly.