The Howard County Police Department will soon have another weapon in its arsenal, and Chief William J. McMahon hopes it will quell disturbances more swiftly and with less force.
The County Council approved the department's use of Tasers, which fire electric probes into the skin to incapacitate a person.
The right to employ the hand-held stun guns in the county was also extended to law enforcement officers from other jurisdictions. But the Sheriff's Department and Howard County Department of Corrections will be prohibited from using the devices, at least until an analysis is completed of the first six months of the program.
The council approved legislation Monday night authorizing the police to carry the weapons. Councilwoman Jennifer Terrasa cast the only dissenting vote.
"The whole idea of opening the door to Tasers make me quite nervous," Terrasa said.
She sought unsuccessfully to impose a six-month limitation on the policy. Terrasa provided no fuller explanation for her opposition to the legislation, but late last month she voiced concern that the stun guns might be used against suspects in custody.
McMahon said the Tasers "are a tool that will reduce the number and intensity of violent encounters with the police."
The county's law prohibiting the use of the electrical weapons had applied to law enforcement officers as well as the public. McMahon received the support of County Executive Ken Ulman in seeking to remove the ban on the Police Department.
"They wanted the legislation because the Police Department wanted to study whether they were going to add them [Tasers] into their bag of tools," Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty said yesterday.
The program will begin modestly, McMahon said. The department will purchase 26 stun guns, and officers will undergo an eight-hour training program before they may carry the weapon.
It will take at least two months to begin the program. McMahon has promised to evaluate the program within six months of its implementation and to provide the council with a report before deciding whether to continue the use of Tasers.
Council Chairman Calvin Ball said the law might be changed to extend the right to carry the weapon to the Sheriff's Department and Department of Corrections after the council has reviewed McMahon's report.
The state police and some other jurisdictions in the state have authorized their officers to use the device, McMahon said
He said officers often encounter aggression from suspects, and Tasers "can a lot quicker bring an end to those struggles."
Jenkins Odoms Jr., president of the Howard County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, had urged rejection of the policy change last month, contending that Tasers "cause death and harm to citizens." McMahon said his department is working with the NAACP and the council to overcome the concerns. He said the program would be fully explained to the public.
In other action, the council extended to proposed minor subdivisions outside the county's public water and sewer boundaries the requirement that residential developers meet with the community before filing their plans with the Department of Planning and Zoning.
The council also required presubmission meetings to be scheduled at least three weeks in advance, but the council backed away from requiring developers to permit an official from the Department of Planning and Zoning to attend those meetings, if requested.
The department said it lacks details until plans are filed, and thus it would be unable to answer many of the public's questions.
The council also confirmed the nominations of several appointees, including Dr. Peter L. Beilenson as the county's health officer, Dr. Janet Siddiqui to the Board of Education and Paul K. Casey to the board of the Department of Housing and Community Development.
The council is scheduled to hear testimony March 19 on several other nominations, including that of Ramsey Alexander Jr. to the Planning Board; Margaret Ann Nolan as county solicitor; and Alfred Bracey to the Human Rights Commission.