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Towson Citizens on Patrol group to honor university police

Towson University Police Chief Bernard Gerst
Towson University Police Chief Bernard Gerst (Photo by Kanji Takeno/Towson University)

When Bernard Gerst retired as a colonel in the Baltimore County Police Department in 2001, his career in law enforcement didn't end.

Since then, Gerst has led the full-service Towson University Police Department, with a staff of 63 that includes 41 sworn officers and 11 dispatchers/communications operators.

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"I retired specifically to take the job at Towson," he said.

Gerst, 57, of Harford County, boasts an enviable record as chief of the growing campus' law enforcement efforts. Now, he and his staff will be among the honorees when the community group Towson Area Citizens on Patrol presents its annual awards June 19 as part of its Rally Against Crime.

The awards ceremony will honor "members of the community who have demonstrated an outstanding effort in fighting local crime to keep Towson safe," according to a TACOP press release.

"[Towson University has a] fully functional police department. Most people don't know that," said Pat France, vice president of TACOP.

The department is being honored "for combating crime at and around Towson University," the press release states.

Also being honored are:

• Jen Spry, an anti-human trafficking activist, who lives in Pennsylvania but speaks regularly in the area, France said. In January, Spry, 41, spoke at Towson University during the Maryland Freedom Conference, which was held to draw attention to human trafficking in the state. She said she was forced by a neighbor in Norristown, Pa., to have sex with strangers from age 8 to 10 and that the neighbor created pornography of her and other children. She said she kept the secret for many years and that her mother, who died a few years ago, never knew about the abuse.

• The Greater Baltimore Medical Center for its Sexual Assault Forensic Examination Program serving victims of domestic violence. The SAFE program is coordinated by registered nurses, trained and certified by the Maryland Board of Nursing, in conjunction with county police and the county State Attorney's office, as well as local universities and sexual assault counseling providers. According to the hospital's website, SAFE cares for victims of sexual assault, age 13 and older, submits forensic evidence to the county police department's crime lab, and does educational outreach programs in schools about safe dating and recognizing and dealing with violence in a relationship.

• The late William "Bill" Toohey, former county police spokesman and communications director for the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, who died March 26 at age 69 of intravascular lymphoma at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. The former radio reporter was the face of the Baltimore County Police Department for more than a decade, dealing with the media on high-profile cases such as the two-week crime spree in March 2000 of Joseph Palczynski, who killed four people and held three hostage before he was shot to death by police officers in a Dundalk row house.

Toohey served as spokesman for county police for 14 years before going to work for the state in 2011.

Accepting the posthumous award will be his widow, Rosemary Toohey, a WNEW radio news anchor and playwright.

"I think it's grand," she said. "It's lovely to have the community recognize his efforts to make things safer over the years. He just considered it a prize to work for such a good police force. He was proud to be [its] public face."

Leading the state

For Gerst and the Towson University police force, the award is a sign of community respect.

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"We've got a very good relationship with [TACOP]," Gerst said. We share our [crime] numbers with them and give them tours."

According to Uniform Crime Report statistics that the police department files monthly with Maryland State Police and the FBI, Towson University had the lowest per capita crime rate for major Part I crimes of any school in the University System of Maryland in 2003, 2005-2006, and 2008-2013, the most recent year for which those statistics are available. The system includes 11 colleges and universities.

The Uniform Crime Report statistics include burglaries, robberies and aggravated assault, but don't include homicides or first-and-second-degree rape, which Baltimore County police handle, Gerst said.

"Our Part I crime statistics have been dropping every year," Gerst said.

In addition to Uniform Crime Report data, the department also files so-called Clery data with the federal Department of Education. Under the federal Clery Act, that data is required for any higher education institution that receives federal funding. The Clery Act is named for Jeanne Clery, a Lehigh University freshman who was raped and murdered in her campus residence hall in 1986.

The public can download Clery data for Towson University from the campus police department's website. Prospective students and their families often use the data to assess how crime prone a college campus is, Gerst said.

Both the Uniform Crime Report and Clery data cover only on-campus crime.

"We don't go off campus unless we're asked to by the county (police)," Gerst said. "It's got to be on the campus to be our jurisdiction," he said, though he noted that his officers can and will respond if asked to by county police.

"If they put out a call for assistance, we're there," he said.

Some high-profile cases locally, for example, were not the jurisdiction of the campus police department, such as the case of a student who was stabbed and whose cellphone was stolen on East Burke Avenue in 2013.

"It's got to be on the campus to be our jurisdiction," Gerst said.

If people see campus police driving off campus, it's because they're going from one campus building to another or they have to go somewhere off campus as part of their investigation of an on-campus crime. They also often accompany university Student Affairs staff members to off-campus residences to talk to students about issues such as loud noise or parties.

The university's low crime statistics compared to others are all the more remarkable because of the constant year-to-year turnover among students.

"You're continually educating a new [university] community," Gerst said.

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