Officers assigned as guards for council

Chief adds protection at twice-monthly meetings in wake of terrorism

November 21, 2001|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County police officers visit County Council chambers regularly to discuss grants, overtime costs and equipment needs. But two SWAT team members sat through an entire council agenda Monday night for a much different purpose: protection.

Police Chief Thomas P. Shanahan has ordered his department's special operations division to provide security at regular council meetings twice a month.

"It hit me that we needed this after we had two warnings from Attorney General John Ashcroft to be careful and use added caution because of possible terrorist attacks," said Shanahan, who added that no new funds will be required to pay for the added security measure.

If no officers are available from the special operations division, which includes the SWAT officers, police dog teams and aviation units, officers will be borrowed from the department's Southern District station in Edgewater. Two officers will attend each of the council's regular meetings, which sometimes last until midnight, but not daytime work sessions,

Unaware of the chief's decision, council members were surprised to see the two uniformed officers at the meeting.

"When I saw them back in our waiting area, I asked them, `Why are you here tonight?'" said Councilwoman Pamela G. Beidle, a Linthicum Democrat. "They said they were being assigned to cover us. ... I said, `Well, I guess I feel safer now.'"

Shanahan talked over his plan this month with council Chairwoman Shirley Murphy, who agreed that a regular police presence would be reassuring. In the past, officers have attended council meetings to provide crowd control, especially in cases of debates on extremely popular, or unpopular, legislation.

Murphy, a Pasadena Democrat, said she wasn't sure if she had mentioned the matter to her council colleagues, but said she assumed they would be happy with the added protection.

"We want people to know that we want to protect our council people," Murphy said. "I think it's a good idea to have police officers in the audience who can keep an eye on things. There are people out there who want to do us in."

Shanahan said his decision to provide security for the council meetings was not sparked by any recent threats, but rather a concern about what might happen if someone, or some group, decided to attack county government offices.

"I feel that this is very important," said Shanahan, who said that officers would not being taken off neighborhood beat patrols for the new detail.

Shanahan said the police force provided similar services during former County Executive John G. Gary's administration, when "the country was at peace."

"Now we have the events of Sept. 11 and all we are doing is going back to a prior practice with existing resources," he said.

Council members elected to drop regular police protection in 1998, but they didn't argue yesterday with the police chief's decision to reinstate the practice.

"Some people might see it as unnecessary, but other people would agree that after Sept. 11, you don't want to be frozen by fear," said Councilwoman Cathleen M. Vitale, a Severna Park Republican. "You want there to be business as usual. Well, this is business as usual, but with a twist."

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