Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry rarely ventures far without his bodyguards. They go to the barbershop with him. They accompany him to Orioles games. One once pushed his cart around a hardware store.
If he needs a ride to the airport, his security team provides one, regardless of whether he is leaving town for personal or official business. Once he gets home, he has a $30,000 taxpayer-funded security system to help police keep tabs on the comings and goings at his Upper Marlboro residence.
Some suburban political leaders such as Curry (D) believe it prudent to take the kind of safety measures once reserved for big-city mayors and state and national leaders. Others, such as Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) and the board chairmen and mayors of Northern Virginia, see no need to follow suit.
"I don't advertise this much . . . but I enjoy not having that detail there," Duncan said. "It can create a barrier between yourself and the public."
Many police chiefs say suburban leaders are putting themselves unnecessarily at risk by turning down security, and all of the perks provided by Curry's bodyguards are kosher under guidelines set by his administration. But leaders outside law enforcement circles wonder whether it's really concern for safety stirring interest in police protection or a desire of some politicians to have a driver and bodyguard at their beck and call.
Howard County Executive James N. Robey (D) said he's been on both sides of the debate. When he was the county's police chief, he strongly urged his Republican predecessor, Charles I. Ecker, to have police protection. Ecker ultimately decided against the idea, and Robey, too, is choosing for now to ignore his own advice.
"If I feel that the need exists, I'll take advantage of it," he said. "I'm not right now."
The executives who rely on police details differ on the extent to which they use their police protection. Curry is at one end of the spectrum. His security advisers have asked him to call day or night, never to go out alone. One officer has pushed Curry's cart for him on trips to a Home Depot, according to a source close to the detail.
"When I'm mobile, they're mobile," Curry said. "It makes them very uncomfortable when I'm going to be in public and they are not there."
Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens (D) uses the three detectives in her detail more sparingly. They go with her to scheduled public events. They don't go with her to the store. Or out to coffee with friends on the weekends, said her spokesman, Andy Carpenter.
Baltimore County Executive C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger III (D), who has two officers assigned to protect him, said he leaves his detail behind when he goes to the movies with his wife. But his guards go with him to sporting events and to all other public functions.
"I'm a big guy, a former jock, and at first I thought, 'Why do I need security?' " Ruppersberger said. "But my police chief told me that nothing was going to happen on his watch. They are with me all of the time."
In Fairfax County, Northern Virginia's largest suburb, none of the elected members of the Board of Supervisors has a security detail or a driver, said Jean V. White, a spokeswoman for the county. County Executive Robert J. O'Neill Jr., who is appointed, does not use police protection either.
Curry is not the first Prince George's politician to have a security detail. Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) also had police protection when he was county executive. As governor, Glendening shares a 27-member executive protection detail with other top state officials.
Prince George's County Council member Walter H. Maloney (D-Beltsville) said he doubts Curry needs police protection. "I think it's unnecessary and a prestige point more than anything."
But Maloney said the council has an understanding with the executive that members won't question his budget and in exchange Curry does not question the council's budget.
"It's an unwritten truce," Maloney said. "I'm a guy who doesn't even have a county car, but I'm not going to criticize someone who does. These are personal things."
Zalee Harris, a Temple Hills community activist who lost a bid for the council last year, said Curry should not be using police protection for anything other than official county business.
"He's a man like the rest of us, and he hasn't been that bad of a politician to not be able to sleep at night," she said. "I think it's a waste of money."
Theresa Mitchell Dudley, a Landover community activist, said people used to have greater access to the county executive in Upper Marlboro. When Curry came into office in 1994, he placed a guard immediately outside his office in the county administration building and another one near the elevators to screen visitors.
"You have to wonder if some of that is [Curry feeling] important and that [he] needs to be protected or if we just want to keep the riffraff out," she said.
Fred Thomas, Curry's deputy chief administrative officer of public safety, said Curry didn't want to have a detail. But Thomas, a former D.C. police chief, said suburban leaders can be lulled into a false sense of security.
"Folks may say it's not Washington," Thomas said, "but you can say the same thing about Columbine," the suburban Denver high school where two teenage boys went on a shooting rampage in April.
Thomas said politicians can overdo it. He pointed to his former boss, longtime District mayor Marion Barry, whose 30-member detail was cut in half by Congress because it cost taxpayers $1 million a year. Barry also was accused of misusing his detail.
"Mr. Barry was a special situation," Thomas said. "His detail was too large. It was far too large."
Thomas said Curry's detail does not accompany him on personal vacations or on official trips out of the state where he is not likely to be recognized. The detail of three or four officers--Thomas would not be more specific--does not have an overtime budget. The average annual salary of the officers is $42,000. The head of the detail is a former Secret Service agent. All have some level of special training.
"Wayne is very, very frugal in terms of his detail," Thomas said. "He's not as security-minded as I would like him to be."
Curry said he tries to rely on his detail "within reason." He appreciates a ride at the end of the day when he is exhausted. But he misses his privacy, too.
"There are times when I just want to be alone," he said. "It gets to be a pain."