Helping people is key for acting police chief


Three hours into his new job as acting chief of the Howard County Police Department, a congenial but also intense William J. McMahon talked about his favorite task as a career police officer.

"A patrol officer - you do all the aspects of the job," he said.

Which is why McMahon spent part of his Memorial Day weekend - while a major and deputy chief were in charge of operations - helping patrol the HFStival at Merriweather Post Pavilion.

"I need to be there. It's very easy to review incidents a day or a week later," but to be out in the heat and experience something as a patrol officer does is different, the 43-year old said.

McMahon doesn't want to lose that perspective, even if he becomes permanent chief after a new county executive takes office in December.

"I'd be honored" to take that job if it's offered, McMahon said in an interview at police headquarters yesterday.

McMahon said things seemed "a little bit" different yesterday, partly because of all the good wishes he has received and because he senses the greater expectations those wishes bring. For now, he's concentrating on the day-to-day job of running what he said is already a well-run department.

"Whether I have the job for six days or six years, my approach is to make decisions in the best interests of the community and the department, long-term," said the Ellicott City husband and father of three.

As a command officer, "it's easy to get wrapped up in numbers. But it's more than that. It's making sure the elderly woman gets across the parking lot at BJ's, or that the young mother at the mall is not being accosted at gunpoint."

He admits it sounds corny, and he knows it's what every police recruit has said, but McMahon's passion remains "helping people and making a difference," he said.

"Those are the enjoyable aspects of the job," said McMahon. The graduate of Good Counsel High, a Roman Catholic high school in Wheaton, decided he wanted to have a police career at age 16. He said he earned a degree in law enforcement from the University of Maryland, College Park in 1983.

His first job was with the National Capital Park Police for two years. He moved to the Howard department in 1986 because he wanted a "full-service agency" with lots of potential, he said.

"It was poised to take off because of growth. It was a great place to get in," he said.

Starting as a patrol officer, McMahon has held every sworn rank and done most jobs on what is now a 380-officer force. He has worked in K-9, special operations, internal affairs, intelligence and tactical, and he was Southern District patrol commander before his 2002 promotion to major and deputy chief.

He was the department's Officer of the Year in 1988. He made sergeant in 1990 and lieutenant six years later, just after getting a master's in administrative science from Johns Hopkins University, he said. He was promoted to captain in 1998.

McMahon also has been involved in major events such as Hurricane Isabel and the Washington sniper killings, and in internal programs such as forming a civil disturbance unit and negotiating labor contracts with the police union.

"He's great. Whenever we've had an issue of differing opinions, he listens to both sides and works to come up with the best solution for everybody," said Jodi Finkelstein, director of the Domestic Violence Center.

"He'll do a tremendous job," she said of McMahon, who has also served on the Howard County Family and Sexual Violence Council and is on the Domestic Violence Center board.

McMahon is a triathlete and volunteers with Special Olympics and Christmas in April, which helps low-income people repair their homes.

Police union President James F. Fitzgerald said McMahon is well regarded by the rank and file and has "a good sense of humor."

Fitzgerald added that McMahon is "very fit," recalling that the chief worked a midnight shift recently - part of his effort to stay in touch with patrol officers.

The two County Council members running for county executive also expressed confidence in him as acting chief.

"I have tremendous respect for Acting Chief McMahon. I have worked with him during my eight years on the County Council and have found him to be very capable as a leader," said council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican.

Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat, expressed a similar view.

"I've found him to be a professional with integrity, and I look forward to working with him," Ulman said.

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