The Mass Transit Administration is investigating whether a transit police officer acted improperly when he handcuffed and took into custody an elderly Towson couple who hadn't paid their light-rail fares.
MTA Police Officer Edgar A. Turner, who has been assigned to administrative duties since the Aug. 31 incident, insists the arrest was justified because the couple were abusive. He said the wife, 76, hit him and that the husband, 77, kicked him.
Details are sketchy, but there is one fact on which everyone involved in the incident seems to agree.
Millie and Guy Austin Campbell of Towson couldn't have purchased their light rail fares when they boarded in Lutherville because both ticket machines were out of order.
"We have a question of judgment and everybody's trying to get to the bottom of it," said Lawrence M. Engleman, the MTA's acting police chief. "This was not a couple of kids. That's why the judgment's being questioned."
Mr. and Mrs. Campbell declined to comment. Their lawyer, H. Patrick Stringer Jr. of Towson, refused to discuss specifics of the episode at their request.
MTA officials said Mr. Stringer has talked to them, however. He has threatened to file suit against the state agency unless they negotiate a settlement.
"Never have either Mr. or Mrs. Campbell felt so violated, abused or humiliated," Mr. Stringer wrote in a Sept. 11 letter to MTA Administrator Ronald J. Hartman. "Never have their dignities or rights been so trampled."
According to the MTA's version of events, the couple were approached by Officer Turner as they rode a southbound light rail train at about 2 p.m. Along with another MTA police officer, he was inspecting passengers' tickets to make sure they had paid their fares.
The Campbells told Officer Turner they had no tickets and that the ticket-dispensing machines were out of order. For some reason -- likely a simple mistake, MTA officials speculate -- the Campbells allegedly told Officer Turner that they had boarded at Timonium, not Lutherville.
Officer Turner checked with his dispatcher and found that the machines in Timonium were in working order. He decided to issue citations to the Campbells, who refused to show any identification, said MTA spokeswoman Dianna Rosborough.
A heated argument allegedly ensued and the couple were taken into custody at the North Avenue stop, handcuffed and taken for booking to the Baltimore Police Department's Central District Station.
"After further discussion and finding out what happened, they were released" several hours later, Ms. Rosborough said.
Chief Engleman said the use of handcuffs was standard procedure in an arrest situation, although formal charges were never filed.
Mr. Stringer, in his letter to the MTA, claims that Mr. and Mrs. Campbell were treated roughly and left "bruised, sore and stiff." He wrote that Mrs. Campbell was particularly shaken by the episode and now has difficulty sleeping.
In a telephone interview, Officer Turner said he offered the Campbells the opportunity to get off the train and buy tickets, but they refused. He said the couple shouted at him when he asked for identification, and that Mrs. Campbell "hit me with a fist" and Mr. Campbell "kicked me" in the shin.
"It wasn't like he said 'no' [to presenting his identification] in a mild manner," said Mr. Turner, a city resident and seven-year veteran of the MTA police. "He wasn't in a polite mood. She was just as hostile."
He said he intended to charge Mr. Campbell with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, and Mrs. Campbell with assault and hindering an arrest.
Officer Turner said he also feels the MTA is "blowing the incident out of proportion" and that he is a victim of racism by both the MTA and the Campbells. Mr. Turner is black and the Campbells are white.
"There's no doubt in my mind that a white officer wouldn't have had to go to that extreme [with the Campbells]," Officer Turner said.
Mr. Stringer denied the officer's contention that his clients behaved in a racist manner. "You couldn't print what I would say in response to that," he said.
Transit officials acknowledge that the incident will likely focus attention on their barrier-free system of collecting fares. Use of the system means that customers don't have to display their tickets or passes as they board the trains. Instead, sometime during the ride an MTA police officer asks about one out of every three passengers to show proof of payment, officials said.
The one-way fare is $1.10 to travel 17 miles from Timonium to Patapsco Avenue in South Baltimore. Before the system was expanded on Aug. 30, the Central Light Rail Line terminated at Camden Station in downtown Baltimore.
If the Campbells had obtained special photo passes, they could have qualified for a 40-cent senior citizens fare.
A rider who hasn't paid the fare can be subject to a misdemeanor citation costing $270 for a first offense and up to $500 for repeat offenses. The fines are deliberately heavy to discourage freeloaders.
Since the line opened last May, MTA officers had approached an estimated 215,745 light rail passengers to check their tickets as of Aug. 31. Of those, 658, or fewer than 1 percent, had not paid the proper fare. Citations have been issued to 21 passengers, records show.
Mr. Hartman said he remains confident that the current fare collection system works well. He said a system that employs a conductor to check each ticket as patrons enter the cars would be costly and slow.
Another alternative, paying for a ticket after boarding, would allow riders to wait and see if a police officer is nearby before choosing whether to pay their fares, he said.
"Our policy is when someone doesn't have a ticket, the officer makes a judgment," said Mr. Hartman. "If they make a judgment it's an honest mistake, they should let people off [without citing them]."