Chief Gary Gardner is a 30-year veteran of the Howard County Police Department. Prior to his appointment, he held the position of deputy chief for operations, overseeing the patrol districts, the Operational Preparedness and the Youth Services divisions.
Throughout his career, Gardner has served in nearly every sector of the department, including as the deputy chief for administration, commander of the criminal investigations bureau, chief of staff, commander in the patrol division and public information officer.
His contributions and accomplishments include the realignment of patrol beats for improved response services; implementation of a crime analysis-driven system for better allocating resources in patrol operations; development of the Alpha Ridge Training Center, as the head of the police planning team; and creation of the department’s Police Memorial Courtyard & Garden, which is located at its Ellicott City headquarters.
Gardner has a master’s degree from Eastern Kentucky University and is a graduate of the FBI’s National Academy. He is a member of the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association, the International Chiefs of Police Association and the FBI National Academy Associates.
He is also an active supporter of Maryland Special Olympics and other law enforcement-related charities. Gardner is also a graduate of Leadership Howard County’s Class of 2006.
What has been notable about the transition between the two county executives you’ve served?
It’s been fairly seamless, in the sense that [former County Executive] Ken [Ulman] called public safety a priority. So far, [new County Executive] Allan [Kittleman] has said likewise, but he has a deficit to address in the current budget. Executive Kittleman has allowed the police department to fill vacancies in order to keep it fully staffed.
However, know that community outreach is one of our six primary focus areas, and the executive has been supportive. The bigger challenge on our end is the change of personnel within the department, since we’ve had a number of senior commanders retire; we have four (of seven) new captains, and two (of three) deputy chiefs are new and, of course, myself.
Where does your budget stand?
With the $15.8 million overall budget shortfall that I just alluded to, the executive directed all department heads to submit 5% budget reduction plans. Recently we learned that we only have to cut 2%, and that sworn positions will be a priority. We’ll have to scale back some training and our fleet mileage, as far as take-home cars go, and more closely monitor our overtime. That said, we should be fine.
Do you plan to add personnel?
No. We have 19 officers in the academy and we just hired six lateral officers who are in the academy. Our authorized strength is 472 officers.
What changes were made within the department after the January 2014 murder-suicide at The Mall in Columbia?
What happened that day was significant, and we should never forget that two innocent young lives were lost that day. I was very pleased with our overall response. We reached out to the public through social media, which proved to be a very valuable tool as far as communicating with the media, public and many mall patrons who had sheltered in place. We also had great support from our Mental Health Authority and Grassroots Crisis Intervention teams, which supported us and the mall patrons. It was eerie walking through mall after the incident, [because] so many people had left their personal belongings to escape.
I also learned a couple of other things that day, notably how strong our community, allied partners and other county agencies are. That’s because, within 40 minutes, they were there. However, we also saw that the Polar Bear Plunge was scheduled for that day, but was postponed due to the weather. That meant that many more officers were able to support our efforts, including officers from neighboring jurisdictions. If you don’t keep all of that organized, chaos can ensue. We were grateful for all of the support we received that day, from the officers, extra K-9 teams and tactical teams.
How are mental health issues being addressed, on the force and in the community?
We have, to my knowledge, the only civilian crisis counselor, from the Mental Health Authority, working within the police department in tandem with our police officers. As a team, they seek to provide useful intervention for those suffering from a mental health illness and direct them to appropriate services.
Secondly, our civilian also conducts two full-week training programs for our officers and 911 employees during the year, where they learn de-escalation techniques and other approaches. In fact, we are going to add an officer to work with our crisis counselor, Grassroots and the Mobile Crisis Team.
What’s your stance concerning body cameras for your officers?
I’m not opposed to them, but I’ll wait to hear some recommendations from our Citizen’s Advisory Committee. I caution people who immediately clamor for them, because I think agencies that have significant community relations issues today may need the cameras on the front end to build the trust back to make their agency more transparent. However, I don’t think it’s the panacea to handle that issue. The camera can’t capture everything.
That trust needs to start with the officer on the road who has direct contact with citizens on a daily basis. That has to happen at street level, but that approach has to be delivered from the top down.
Is technology coming to the forefront at the department?
We are always looking for new technology. Presently, I’m looking for new ways to enhance forensic processing of computers and phones, which take time to process. Today, we’re processing more information than ever. I also see us having a section that focuses in computer-related crime in the near future.
How does the department work with the Howard County Public School System?
Right now, we have officers in all of the high schools, three middle schools and the Homewood School. Eventually, I would like to add more to our middle schools.
How does the department work with the business community?
We operate the Howard County Police Foundation, which is composed of a number of businesses who fundraise for us to provide equipment, training and other support for the department. We are in the midst of strategic planning with the foundation to set priorities and find new ways to support the department and improve the quality of life for our community.
Will the department continue to expand efforts to address human trafficking?
Yes. That will include two additional detectives being assigned to work in the vice section to support our existing efforts. (see The Business Monthly, November 2014). That will happen this summer, when the new academy graduates. Know that trafficking is not always for sex; it can be for labor, too.
How are the workings of the department monitored from within?
Via our Internal Affairs Department, which handles all complaints against officers from citizens, as well as from our supervisors. In addition, we have various mechanisms built in to the system.
For instance, if officers are involved in use of force more frequently than our parameters allow, it comes up in our computer system, and we have someone further examine the officer’s actions. We have also done internal compliance and integrity checks.
Does having Route 95 cut right through Howard County cause any particular issues?
Having a major interstate highway in your county can create a number of issues. Traffic issues can sometimes be problematic when there is an accident, with road closures forcing motorists to use our side roads as alternates, which creates congestion.
Also, it is convenient for drug and human trafficking. We are aware of those issues and work with our Maryland State Police partners and other allied agencies to address those concerns.
When does your 2014 annual report come out? Are there any particular stats with the various crime rates that concern you?
The report will be out by mid-March. In the crime stats, there is nothing alarming; in fact, it looks like we have “below” preliminary numbers in burglary and auto theft that have not been seen in more than 40 years. That’s even more interesting, given that we are geographically located between two major metropolitan hubs.
You’ve been on the job for 10 months. What’s surprised you the most?
Time is moving very quickly, especially since our personnel changes have slowed down after I did 75 interviews. At the same time, it was very enlightening, because the interviews gave me a chance to learn a great deal about our people. It’s very important to be a good listener in this position. We have many talented employees.
What career event are you proudest of?
The memorial in front of our headquarters. I never realized just how much it meant to the family members that everyone knows that the officers are not forgotten. Also, having been part of the planning team for the James Robey Public Safety Training Academy. Other jurisdictions ask to train here, and we share the use of the facility when we can. I think it’s the crown jewel of the agency.