Taser gripes due for review

Council session will also take up rules on planners' role in project meetings

February 23, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,sun reporter

Opposition to two separate bills - one that would permit Howard County police to use hand-held electronic stun devices and another to give residents the right to ask that county planners attend developers' information meetings - will be reviewed at a County Council work session Monday.

Council members also plan to discuss a $400,000 budget transfer requested by County Executive Ken Ulman to cover payouts for appointed officials who were fired or retired after the former executive, James N. Robey, left office.

Votes on all the legislation are scheduled for March 5.

Speaking at a council public hearing Tuesday night, Jenkins Odoms Jr., president of the Howard County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, opposed allowing county police, sheriff's deputies and correctional officers to use the stun devices. A county law approved 22 years ago banned the devices, which shoot probes into the skin, incapacitating a person for about five seconds.

County police want the law amended to allow them to have the weapons, which Chief William J. McMahon and other officers testified could sharply reduce violent incidents.

McMahon told the council that a cadre of specially trained officers would get the 20 devices, sometimes known by the trade name "Taser." The chief said the stun devices are a less lethal alternative to firearms and could mean fewer altercations involving police, and fewer injuries.

The three shootings by police over the past few years probably would not have taken place if the officers had the devices, he said. He also noted that Maryland State Police operating in Howard County have Tasers, which is a technical violation of county law that the council should correct.

McMahon said he wants a six-month pilot program requiring eight hours of training for each officer he approves to be equipped with the devices. They would be used only on people actively resisting police, he said.

But Odoms said Tasers "cause death and harm to citizens." He told council members that he has had "numerous e-mails and calls" from people worried about how the police would use Tasers.

"I fully support the police," Odoms said, but not in this request. McMahon said he planned to meet with Odoms and other NAACP leaders to further explain the department's views.

Cpl. Ronald Baker, president of the Howard County Police Officers' Association, backed the chief, as did Herb Wachinski Jr., president of the volunteer Citizens Advisory Council, and Greenbelt police Officer Bob Dowling, who said he once used a Taser to safely subdue a naked man who was acting bizarrely after using PCP.

On the development bill, Planning Director Marsha S. McLaughlin criticized the suggestion that county staff members attend developers' community meetings - a measure sponsored by Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat. Her bill gained the support of the League of Women Voters and the Howard County Citizens Association, but not from McLaughlin, who said she does not have enough staff members to respond to such requests.

The bill, which would require developers to give residents three weeks' notice, instead of two, in scheduling meetings about planned projects, also would allow residents to request a county planner to attend.

Developers are required now to hold the meetings, which occur before any plans are submitted, and then submit a written description of the meeting to the county.

McLaughlin said the bill would be difficult for her to work under.

"We are extremely short-staffed," she said, and office space is so cramped that she would have no place to put more staff members if she got some. In addition, she worried that while staff members could explain the process to residents, they could also be caught between residents and builders.

She wants to require developers to submit their meeting notes to anyone who attends a session, which would give residents a chance to complain about any perceived inaccuracies.

Council members also had questions for Lonnie Robbins, chief administrative officer, about details of money transfers from the contingency fund to employees who have left county government.

Robbins agreed under questioning by Greg Fox, a western county Republican, that some of the money would cover higher salaries that Ulman is paying some of the people he has hired. Fox also wondered why one former Robey staff member who moved from the executive office to the county housing department got $4,090 in severance. Robbins said the employee was laid off, but rehired on a contractual basis.

He said Ulman has told him to look for ways to limit future payouts to departing staff members.

Robbins promised more detailed explanations before the work session.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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