Security guards at Columbia village centers will remain armed with guns, following a strong show of support this week from business owners who told the Rouse Co. that might makes right.
After being presented with a petition signed by more than 40 business operators and area residents who argued they felt unsafe without gun-toting guards, Rouse officials opted Friday to maintain the status quo in the village centers' security force.
Chief among merchants' fears was a plan to un-arm Columbia Management's 20-member security team, which is in charge of foot patrols at seven of Columbia's eight village centers.
Under an agreement reached Friday between Rouse representatives and security officials, the village centers will continue to be patrolled by retired and sworn police officers, with the latter allowed to carry weapons, said George N. Zumbrun, security director for Columbia Management.
"We had a lot of people that were scared about the prospect of us losing our guns," Zumbrun said. "But the merchants let their feelings be strongly known and the Rouse people listened."
The security staff of Columbia Management, a subsidiary of the Rouse Co., is staffed mostly by sworn area police officers.
Business owners were upset over a proposal by Rouse officials to staff the village centers with lesser-trained security guards, such as those found at Rouse's various mall locations, Zumbrun said.
Elizabeth Buckley, a Rouse marketing manager for the shopping areas, said many erroneous rumors had been spread, and that the company never planned to fire the armed, off-duty police officers who work as security guards in favor of unarmed guards.
However, she said, the company has reviewed its security needs and hopes to make improvements over coming months.
"There will be no drastic changes. We are trying to make our guards more visible," she said. "Guards will get new uniforms."
Other likely changes to the decade-old security program include the addition of roving security vehicles, a security director and assistant security director, and, "we might look to have more officers." Buckley said she did not want to discuss details of security changes because that might undermine security at those locations.
"If a Howard County police officer pulls out his gun, his status reverts back to being a police officer," she noted.
"We are really status quo," Buckley said.
In a written memo to security personnel, the new security system is described as one "which has been adopted and implemented by the Rouse Co.
in 78 of its retail centers across the country."
But merchants spoke out loudly against any possibility of an unarmed security force, saying that Columbia village centers should not be considered in the same vein as the average retail center.
"We want the security that we paid for. We don't want word to get around Columbia that our guys aren't carrying guns," said Helen Groomes, the owner of Total Concept hair salon in the Long Reach Village Center. Groomes circulated a petition throughout the village centers this week.
The Domino's Pizza store directly across from Groomes' shop was the site of an armed robbery two weeks ago. In January, a Loomis Armored car guard was killed by a gunman who robbed the center's Signet Bank branch. Last July, a Domino's delivery man was shot in the stomach.
"I'm not messing around here. I want the guards to have guns," said Groomes, who described the village center as "a nice place, but it attracts its share of bad people at night."
At the request of the Rouse Co., police have begun a survey of individual businesses at the village centers in order to determine what future security measures will be implemented by county police, said police spokesman Gary L. Gardner.
"We want to see what the overall picture is and what people want," Gardner said.
So far this year, more than 4,500 county police officers have conducted routine foot patrols at the village centers, Gardner said.
Toni Ridings, the owner of Ridings' Liquors in the Wilde Lake Village Center, said she hopes that no plans are made to take away the security officers' guns.
"I think we need them. In 1990, you need an aggressive approach," said Ridings, whose store has been burglarized twice in the last month. "The best system is to take guns away from everybody, but when you can't do that, you need armed guards to act as a deterrent."
Ridings said that she believes the business owners will arm themselves if they are not always provided with adequate security.
"The merchants will get their own guns and that'll be dangerous," Ridings said. "I hope they always realize that an experienced officer is a lot better person to be carrying a gun around than a merchant."