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Towson University posts lowest on-campus crime rate in decades

Towson University posted its lowest crime rate in 19 years in 2013, with just one instance of violent crime on campus and a combined 118 instances of Part 1 crime, according to university statistics.

According to data provided by the university, the only violent crime on campus reported in 2013 was a robbery. The university reported no homicides, rapes or aggravated assaults on campus.

TU Police Chief Bernie Gerst attributed the low rates, which amount to 5.24 instances of serious crime per 1,000 students, to a number of different factors. Gerst touted the university police department's education of students and the public about safety; the creation of a community policing atmosphere; and its efforts to deal with and solve cases as they occur as those factors.

On Wednesday, a shelter-in-place drill was held at the university's Child Care Center on Auburn Drive to demonstrate to the public and media an example of a security exercise, such as the ones that are regularly held on campus.

University statistics for 2013 reveal that of those 117 property crimes, 111 were thefts, five were burglaries and one was motor vehicle theft. Gerst, who worked with Baltimore County police for 20 years prior, called these crimes of opportunity, which he said could be combated by educating students on how to better protect their property.

As the school's enrollment has grown from 14,551 in 1995 to 22,499 in 2013, Part 1 crime — which is defined as violent crime and property crime combined — per 1,000 students dropped from 30.93 to 5.24.

Gerst said that each building on campus has a university police officer assigned to it who is responsible for coordinating public safety issues such as lighting and high shrubbery with building managers.

"It goes back to some basic crime prevention through environmental design, and goes back to the issue of looking for environmental conditions that might be a safety hazard," Gerst said.

Despite the low crime rates on campus, Gerst said considerable efforts go toward keeping students informed of crimes that occur off campus, where a large portion of the student population lives and socializes.

Several high-profile incidents did take place off campus in 2013, including the Nov. 3 stabbing and robbery of a student who was walking home from class on East Burke Avenue. In late August, a female student reported a sexual assault outside of her apartment building in University Village.

Campus police has no jurisdiction off-campus, Gerst said, but they keep students informed via email crime alerts and on Facebook. Towson University's Twitter account also posts crime alerts for areas where students might be.

"An informed public is a better protected public, not only letting them know what's occurring but also protecting them from being a victim," Gerst said.

During the shelter-in-place drill on Wednesday, university police, working with the Office of Emergency Preparedness and the Department of Environmental Health and Safety, re-created an emergency situation in the bright, open daycare center as teachers read to their 2- and 3-year-old students.

A test announcement blared through the loudspeaker of the Child Care Center. As they had been earlier instructed to do, teachers led their toddlers into a secure area, in many cases the classroom's bathrooms, and awaited instruction from one of the half-dozen police officers on the scene.

Some officers stayed with the children during the drill, while others patrolled the hallways and ensured the classrooms were secured. The drill lasted just under five minutes.

Gerst said such drills are scheduled quarterly in the Child Care Center, and that drills occur in other campus buildings such as the library and student union throughout the year, as well.

During a typical drill, Gerst said officers will meet beforehand to discuss the plan, which they then exercise in a portion of a building. In some cases, Baltimore County officers join the drills, as they would likely be called in case of a crisis.

"We talk about how we're going to work together and how we're going to coordinate efforts," Gerst said.

The university police department was recently accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies and for the 29th year has earned a Governor's Crime Prevention Award for Law Enforcement Agencies, the university said.

"It shows that we're concsistent, and shows that we place a high emphasis on crime prevention, and our police philosophy isn't just traditional patrol and enforcement," Gerst said. "Our process is really community policing, crime prevention, and problem-solving."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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