Retired police colonel named to head force at Towson University

New director worked 22 years in Balto. County

January 03, 2001|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

A just-retired Baltimore County police colonel takes over today as chief of Towson University's police department.

Col. Bernard J. Gerst, who rapidly rose from a county police cadet to several high-ranking posts within the department, retired Monday as the head of the Human Services Bureau.

The choice of Gerst completes the university's yearlong search for a chief. Campus officials say their decision to hire Gerst signifies their determination to work more closely with county police.

Gerst has been given the title of director of public safety and will oversee a force of 42 officers and Aron, the police dog. The officers patrol the 328-acre campus and the surrounding neighborhoods, where some of the university's 16,000 students reside.

"I am leaving the county because this is a perfect fit and one of those perfect opportunities," said Gerst, 43, a Towson alumnus.

Jay Taffel, a senior business analyst at the university, said Gerst was selected after a nationwide search produced 70 applicants. Taffel was one of nine people on the university committee seeking a replacement for Stephen Murphy, who retired in December 1999 after a decade as chief.

"We were looking for someone to raise the professionalism," Taffel said.

Towson University also recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the county police. The memorandum outlines how the two can work together better.

Towson is the second-largest university in Maryland, behind the University of Maryland, College Park, and its police force has been faced with increasing numbers of alcohol- and drug-related incidents.

The number of liquor law violations rose from 185 in 1997 to 220 in 1999, the latest statistics available. The number of drug-related arrests increased from 36 in 1997 to 46 in 1999, according to campus crime statistics.

The number of crimes - including burglary, arson and aggravated assault - has remained stable during the period.

Taffel said university officials hope Gerst will improve officer training, put on crime-prevention seminars, evaluate university security and forge stronger relationships with the school's neighbors.

Towson University officials have also been examining a joint patrol program that the University of Maryland, College Park has established with the Prince George's County Police Department.

The program puts a county and a university officer in a patrol car to respond to student-related incidents. Gerst said it was "premature" for him to offer any policy changes.

Gerst began with the county police as a cadet in 1978. His first assignment was in the Essex Precinct. After a brief stint in narcotics, he returned to Essex as a sergeant in 1984. He attained the rank of colonel 11 years later and became head of the Technical Services Bureau and then the Criminal Investigations Bureau.

In October 1997, after a departmental reorganization, Chief Terrence B. Sheridan tapped Gerst to head the Operations Bureau.

In that role, Gerst had what he said was his toughest day in the department: Feb. 7 of last year, when he had to announce that Sgt. Bruce Prothero had been shot and killed while working off-duty at a Pikesville jewelery store.

"That was the hardest thing I ever had to do," Gerst said.

Gerst was transferred March 18 to the Human Services Bureau.

He said he made the decision to retire after 22 years in the department to have a chance to run his own operation, but is grateful for the support he has received from members of the county force.

Last week, several officers posted words of encouragement on the Fraternal Order of Police message board. "Sorry to see him leave as he never forgot about the officers on the street as he moved up to command level," Officer Robert Speed wrote and reiterated in a telephone interview.

"That right there means more to me than any retirement plaque," Gerst said.

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