MTA police chief has eye on curbing youth crime

April 26, 1994|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff Writer

Before he wades through a light rail car filled with unruly teens, Bernie Foster dons his most stern state trooper face.

His eyes narrow. His jaw clenches. His posture stiffens. The hardened expression telegraphs a message: "Don't mess with me. I mean business."

The youths are loud. They hurl a few mildly insulting comments. But that's as bad as it gets.

"They seem to have a lot of pent-up energy," he notes dryly. "It's a phenomenon I don't quite understand."

That may have to change if Mass Transit Administration Police Chief Bernard B. Foster Sr. is to curb the rising problem of youth crime on buses and the light rail system.

Last night at the World Trade Center downtown, Mr. Foster met with leaders from community organizations along the Central Light Rail Line from Glen Burnie to Linthicum. The meeting was set up to talk about ways to curb violence not only on light rail, but in adjoining neighborhoods.

It is a lofty goal for an agency policed by a 99-officer force that, at any given moment, has to keep track of activity on 750 buses, 10 subway trains and 10 light rail trains in near-constant motion.

By various accounts, Chief Foster has proven a demanding taskmaster since he took over the troubled force last year. Veteran officers say he has brought a level of professionalism and competence that was lacking in the past.

"We have been very impressed with his efforts to turn the police department into a real police department," said Archer Blackwell, negotiator for the union representing MTA officers. "We're just hoping the MTA's top management will support him."

MTA Administrator John A. Agro Jr. calls Chief Foster "focused, disciplined and a consummate professional." The two men met when Mr. Agro was head of the Maryland Transportation Authority, which oversees the state's toll facilities, and Chief Foster headed the state police barracks at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway.

Chief Foster, 40, is the first black to head the MTA's police department, where blacks hold 55 percent of uniformed jobs.

It is a long way from Edmondson Village in West Baltimore, where he grew up and watched drugs claim friends.

"Of the 15 guys I grew up with, maybe eight are alive today and two or three are doing well," he says. "I guess my parents and the neighbors kept me straight."

When he was a junior in high school, his father, a crane operator, died of a heart attack. His mother died of cancer two years later. After graduating from Edmondson High School in 1972, he worked for two years as an auto mechanic and black-belt martial arts instructor before he became a policeman.

With the state police, he followed a career track toward leadership, working intelligence, internal affairs and drug enforcement before taking over the barracks in Cecil County in December 1990.

In the 1970s, he gained prominence for making numerous drunken driving arrests before anti-drunken driving campaigns became popular. He still carries a citation book in his car so that he can stop speeders during his commute on Interstate 95 between his home in Conowingo and his office in Baltimore.

Youth crime has been the bane of the MTA in recent months, an outgrowth of the violence taking place on city streets. Teens who fight, harass passengers, vandalize MTA property and sometimes commit more serious crimes are a leading reason that light rail crime is growing faster than ridership.

To help solve the juvenile crime problem, the chief has already reorganized the department, juggling officers' schedules to meet peak demand. He has launched undercover patrols and created a telephone tip line with rewards of up to $1,000. He intends to hire 22 more officers this year. He's even looking into installing video surveillance cameras on buses and light rail cars to monitor passengers.

But just as important, he wants to know why youngsters are so bent on destroying property or harassing passengers. He wants a better dialogue with other police departments, with the city school system and with neighborhoods served by transit.

"Our main focus is the comfort and safety of the passenger, but we also have to think of the broader scope to make the entire system safe," he says.

The bachelor father of two college students, he is known to work 14- to 16-hour days, frequently rising at 5 a.m. for workouts in his basement gym. His office is in the "sardine can," the steel-clad building on Eutaw Street, but he is rarely there.

The public relations-minded chief is more often found meeting with employee groups, business organizations or community associations. MTA police are distinctive, he says, in their customer orientation. Most MTA officers mingle with passengers all day, answering questions, giving directions, checking fares and controlling crowds.

Chief Foster has a drill sergeant's steel will and eye for detail. He wants his men and women to have standardized uniforms and standardized equipment, and to keep patrol cars in mint condition.

"People want to know what their parameters are," he says. "If they don't, they'll keep testing it."

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