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Behind the Shield

Officer James Zammillo shares what it's like being on the front lines in the community.

Article by Katrina Hall

Photography by Howard County Police Department

Originally published in Columbia Lifestyle

Lifestyle recently spoke with Watch Commander James Zammillo, a 16-year veteran of the Howard County Police Department. Lieutenant Zammillo has served in various assignments including criminal investigations, community services and patrol. He has a Master of Science Degree in Intelligence from Johns Hopkins University and a Bachelor’s Degree from Frostburg State University.

Lt. James Zammillo oversees a platoon out of the northern district of Howard County with three sergeants; 27 officers altogether. He, like so many other first responders, has bravely placed himself in harm’s way to secure the safety of our community during the coronavirus pandemic, and we owe all of them a debt of gratitude. When asked to describe the changes to his day-to-day duties during this pandemic, Zammillo explains: “The department has really had to change how it does day to day operations. I have worked here 16 years, and seeing masks in the office and taking temperatures before shifts are things I never thought I would see. Depending on the assignment, we spend up to five days a week in uniform and are constantly switching everything over and over so we stay sterile.” He credits Chief Lisa Myers and the department’s senior leadership team for enacting precautions in the early stages of this crisis. “You see a lot of police forces are laid down, ill and we have seen above average results in that respect.”

The department initially decreased its traffic contact to attending to the most egregiously dangerous actions, such as impaired or erratic driving. However, some members of the community have mistakenly viewed greatly reduced traffic as an invitation to speed.  Consequently, Howard County officers have had to change their focus to serious traffic safety violations, like excessive speed, DUIs and other high-risk behaviors. The department uses telecommunication to communicate and solve problems where possible in order to reduce exposure. Still, we make it a point to make our presence known in the community. We have our ‘silent cruise lights’ on major roadways like routes 40 and 100, and others to reassure people that we are there. We have been at local stores and parks, reassuring people with our presence,” he said, adding that the “biggest change is having to explain the ‘whys” to people. 

 Every day there are changes and new information like roping playgrounds off and closing parks, except to foot traffic. Much of this is letting people know what is allowed; what is still safe. The community, including members of my family have a lot of questions. I reassure them that it is fine to go for walks…get some air. I encourage people to get their outside time. Just be safe about it. Some of our guys in the western part of the county get in seven miles a day around Glenwood Regional Park.”
          

Zammillo’s home life has been turned upside down by the pandemic. His wife is a Montgomery County schoolteacher and is adjusting to online teaching like so many others. All of this, while taking care of their one-year-old son and four-year-old daughter. “It is chaos,” he said. “When I come home, my daughter wants to come in to hug me, and I am like, ‘No! No!’  I have to shower and make sure everything is sanitary first. Then everyone gets hugs.”

Sundays used to be a time when Zammillo’s extended family, including his sister and nieces, would spend time together. Since his sister is a cardiac physician’s assistant at the University of Maryland, she cannot be around the at-risk family members, like his dad. “I have to be careful not to expose anyone because of my line of work. I am still able to do what I can, but with less contact. It is an absolute game-changer.” 


In the midst of these stressful times, there are positive takeaways—'silver linings'. 
 Zammillo says getting back to the community has been a positive result. “I think you definitely get back to being more involved in the community, having to interact closely with people while being physically distanced,” he said. “The outpouring of support has been overwhelming. We have had restaurants bring our people food; we had a shop in Ellicott City offer to help feed families in need. It has been amazing seeing everyone help each other out.”

To you, Lt. Zammillo, and to all of our first responders, we offer our sincere and heartfelt, “thank you” for being our hometown heroes.

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