You might have noticed someone new at recent Howard County Council Meetings: an armed police officer.
Since July 1, a uniformed officer has been present at all County Council legislative sessions and public hearings.
The change was made at the recommendation of Police Chief William J. McMahon.
"We think it's wise," McMahon said. "Democracy, it's a great thing. People get to voice their opinions. Most people do it in great ways, but there are times when people do it in inappropriate ways."
After moving into the renovated George Howard government building in August 2010, the County Council asked McMahon to review the security and safety of its meetings. Based on that analysis, McMahon suggested that an officer be present at public meetings.
The review also prompted the police department to train council staff on how to deal with agitated individuals.
"I am glad to have somebody there," Councilwoman Jen Terrasa said. "A lot of times we are making decisions that are close to home, and those are the decisions that people can be the most emotional about."
Terrasa said that during her nearly five years sitting at County Council meetings, there have been "a couple times" when someone made her feel "a little uncomfortable."
Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty said it's good to be cautious.
"We've had occasion, based on communication to us, to wonder about our security," Sigaty said. "There's all sorts of things that are happening in today's world that I don't think we've seen before, so we're looking at trying to provide safety not only for ourselves but for anybody who attends our meetings."
What other counties do
The new measure puts Howard County in line with some neighboring counties, such as Baltimore and Prince George's, which already have a police presence at County Council meetings. In Montgomery County, where council members serve full time and have meetings at least three times a week, an officer is only present at meetings expected to be well attended.
Additionally, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman has had a security detail since July 1, 2007.
"It's based on the global environment," Councilwoman Courtney Watson said. "In this day and age, you see things all the time that you never think would have happened."
In the past year, many things have taken place that "just kind of raise everybody's anxiety," according to McMahon.
On Dec. 14, 2010, a man fired multiple shots at school board members in Florida, following the firing of his wife, who was a teacher. During a shootout with an armed security guard, the man killed himself.
At a Tucson shopping center on Jan. 8, 2011, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot during a routine open meeting with citizens in her district. Six people were killed in the rampage and 13 others injured, including Giffords.
"In Arizona, six people got killed — and those were just spectators," said Neil Greenberger, legislative information officer for the Montgomery County Council, which has increased police presence at meetings since last winter's events.
Greenberger said the increase has been received positively by constituents. At a recent meeting "people came up to me and said 'Thank you, I feel safer,'" Greenberger said.
An intimidating presence?
But Alice Giles, co-president of the Howard County League of Women Voters, said having a uniformed officer at meetings could be a problem for some people.
"I can see some people worried about it," Giles said. "By and large I don't think there will be any negative effect, but I think there will be a few people who might be intimidated."
Giles also said that she doesn't think an officer is needed at meetings.
"The council rarely runs into any sort of situation, and honestly there are other meetings in the county that run into more trouble," Giles said, referring to some contentious recent school board meetings.
But Greater Elkridge Community Association President Howard Johnson, who frequently attends council meetings, disagreed that having a police presence at meetings would intimidate constituents.
"If someone does have thoughts of harming somebody, then that would be a deterrent; but if you're going in there with a good conscience, then I don't think having a police officer there would be intimidating," he explained.
For now, an officer will only be present at County Council meetings, and not Zoning Board meetings, where council members sit on zoning issues, or County Council work sessions, which mostly take place during the day and are not usually attended by the public.
Additionally, there are no plans to have an officer at school board meetings, although McMahon said "that's certainly something that I'd be open to."